1c42ad 1d0480af85c34daebacabf57f661f351

Exploring the Challenges in Big Plastic’s $1.5 Billion Global Cleanup Initiative

All the plastic recycled at Wat Chak Luk Ya Community Enterprise is carefully cleaned, dried and sorted. Photographer: Andre Malerba/Bloomberg
All the plastic recycled at Wat Chak Luk Ya Community Enterprise is carefully cleaned, dried and sorted. Photographer: Andre Malerba/Bloomberg

Nearly four years post the initiation of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, its practical recycling impact is minimal when contrasted with the fresh plastic output from its primary members—petrochemical companies.

In May 2021, the X-Press Pearl, a container ship, caught fire and sank off the coast of Sri Lanka, spilling billions of plastic pellets known as nurdles into the Indian Ocean. This incident marked the largest plastic spill in history, as declared by the United Nations. The Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), backed by major companies like Exxon Mobil Corp., Dow Chemical Co., and Chevron Phillips Chemical Co., pledged its support to clean up the affected beaches.

The AEPW introduced “Sweepy Hydros,” machines designed to expedite the cleanup by filtering out nurdles. However, over a year later, these machines remain largely unused, stored in shipping containers. A team of women on Sri Lanka’s shores manually cleans the nurdles using shovels and sieves, citing the ineffectiveness of the Sweepy Hydros, which struggle with wet sand and require scarce resources in the midst of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis.

This episode in Sri Lanka is just one of approximately 50 projects the AEPW claims to support globally. Established in January 2019, the Alliance aimed to invest up to $1.5 billion over five years to combat plastic waste. However, an investigation by Bloomberg Green reveals that the organization is predominantly influenced by petrochemical companies, with limited impact on plastic waste reduction.

Despite claims of diverting 34,000 tons of plastic from the environment, AEPW’s efforts represent a mere 0.2% of its initial target to remove 15 million tons in five years. Notably, the Alliance’s roots trace back to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a plastic producer lobby group. Petrochemical companies within AEPW, notably Exxon, appear to steer the focus toward downstream solutions such as collection and recycling, avoiding discussions on reducing plastic production—an approach in line with the ACC’s agenda.

AEPW, while emphasizing downstream solutions, faces criticism for its minimal contribution to addressing the global plastic waste crisis. The organization’s projects, highlighted through extensive PR efforts, often fall short of their claims. Examples include support in Thailand, where a community leader is unaware of AEPW, and the Philippines, where plastic-for-plastic practices raise concerns.

The AEPW’s emphasis on recycling infrastructure in developing countries underscores its belief that this can contain the plastic waste crisis. However, studies repeatedly indicate that recycling alone cannot keep pace with the escalating daily plastic disposal worldwide. The Alliance’s ambitious goals and corporate backing are challenged by the sheer complexity and scale of the plastic waste problem, which continues to rise unabated.

As global plastic waste more than doubles over two decades, AEPW’s limitations raise questions about the efficacy of recycling-focused initiatives led by petrochemical companies. Critics argue that the emphasis on downstream solutions serves as a form of “greenwashing,” diverting attention from the core issue—reducing overall plastic production.

In conclusion, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste faces scrutiny for its operational limitations, corporate influence, and challenges in achieving meaningful impact on the global plastic waste crisis. The tension between promoting recycling and the need for broader systemic changes underscores the complexities inherent in addressing one of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time.