Policies that meet local need: why there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution

In a perfect world, we would reduce plastic pollution by simply identifying the most effective solutions and rolling them out wherever they are needed around the world. Why, in reality, is it more complicated?

This is the third post in our deep-dive series into the key themes that surfaced during last year’s event, Breaking the Plastic Wave Across the Commonwealth, held in partnership with Defra, the Government of Vanuatu, the Pew Trusts and Duke University.

The event, and these posts, built off consultations with 24 Low- and Middle-Income Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance (CCOA) members about the challenges and opportunities they face in tackling the plastic pollution crisis. We heard many different needs expressed through these consultations, and the following themes emerged as a good place to focus our efforts, support and collaboration:

  1. Knowledge to develop evidence-based interventions to stop plastic leakage;
  2. Developing effective solutions that meet local needs;
  3. Availability of suitable alternative systems and materials;
  4. Opportunities to progress together within an enabling CCOA community.

To explore why plastic pollution policies must be adaptable to local economic, market and industrial conditions, let’s look at an example: the deposit-return scheme (DRS).

These schemes work by adding a small extra charge to the price of, for example, a plastic drinks bottle. If the consumer hands in the bottle for recycling, they can claim back the extra charge. There are about 45 active DRS in the world. In Europe and the United States, these schemes can achieve between 57% and 98% recovery of waste plastic.

The variation in recovery rates can be explained by different aspects of a schemes’ design, particularly linked to the deposit value and the return infrastructure. Many of the Governments we spoke to wanted technical support to understand the potential for DRS to increase recycling and reduce plastic litter in their country, and to understand the financial models, technology and infrastructure that will enable it to be effective.

This was particularly true in cases where data on the volumes of different plastic materials on the market was lacking, waste collection infrastructure was less developed, there were relatively low volumes of material available, and logistical challenges or geographical isolation impeded the economic feasibility of accessing recycling markets.

Designing DRS systems that meet the needs of Low- and Middle-Income countries is made more challenging because existing case studies are dominated by European and North American examples. Fortunately, there are a growing number of examples of DRS systems being implemented that we can learn from – for example in Kiribati and Fiji.

We’ve drawn out some of the key principles for a successful DRS:

  • Make sure that the deposit value is high enough to incentivise the return of deposit bearing items but does not overburden poorer members of society. To find the right balance, it might be better to start with a lower value that can be increased if needed.
  • Keep the system as straightforward as possible for consumers and waste collectors. By including a broad range of different plastic items, but setting a standard deposit rate, you can make the system easier to understand and prevent consumers from having to sort between returnable and non-returnable items. Clear labelling helps the consumer to know which items are included in the scheme and limits fraudulent activity by preventing non-eligible items from being returned.
  • To make it convenient for consumers, position collection points near to where the items are commonly bought and disposed of, such as marketplaces or retailers. Making sure that there is appropriate storage available and easy access for collection.
  • Think about your collection system. Reverse vending machines can be very effective, but they have high maintenance and installation costs, which makes them unsuitable for many countries. Manual collection methods are technologically simpler and can be run through existing retailers, or through redemption centres in public spaces.
  • Design the system to minimise disruption to the informal waste sector and enhance social inclusivity. For example, providing opportunities for waste workers to form their own collection and redemption centres can create new jobs, increase income, and contribute to higher collection rates.
  • Whilst Government must enact legislation that requires DRS to be implemented, the private sector is closely involved in running it. In many cases, the design and operation of a DRS is made the responsibility of a producer responsibility organisation (PRO). This requires close coordination and Government oversight to ensure transparency. For example, to manage any funds that are generated through consumer deposits that are not collected.
  • Finally, it’s important that the public is supportive of the system and understand the role that they have to play. If DRS is not widely understood, then building in public education and awareness-raising into the timeline will help end-users understand the benefits and build public trust.

At Common Seas, we help decision-makers to understand the plastic waste problem, prioritise the most effective interventions and adapting them to meet their country’s needs.

For example, our work in the Maldives identified plastic bottles as a key source of waste and pollution and supported the Government to announce an ambitious phase-out strategy. We are now supporting the implementation by exploring the feasibility and system design of instruments like DRS, whilst also testing and demonstrating refill and reuse systems that will help to reduce single-use water bottle waste across the country.

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