Helping to create a sustainable market for plastic waste

The Alliance to End Plastic Waste builds a platform for sustainability decision-making
by David Fawcett
7-minute read

According to Plastics Europe, the world produced around 380 million tons of plastic in 2020. That’s nearly 100 pounds per every man, woman and child on the planet. One doesn’t need to see the statistics to know how ubiquitous plastics are in everyday life, and how integral they are to just about every sector of the global economy.

They’re in the cars people drive, the appliances in their kitchens and the devices they use to connect with the world. Perhaps the most prominent impact of plastics, and the single biggest usage category worldwide, has been in packaging. The many beneficial properties of plastic — among them lightness, durability and overall versatility — has made it the de facto choice for packaged goods the world over.

But for all its economic and functional benefits, the steady growth of plastics-based packaging has also fueled a vast increase in the volume of waste, especially among “single-use” packages such as plastic bottles and bags. Put simply, plastic waste has a containment issue. Each year, millions of tons of plastic bypass recycling facilities and leak into the environment, ending up in landfills or the world’s oceans, where it can persist for decades.

Recognizing the gravity of the plastic waste problem, governments, non-government organizations (NGOs) and companies are proposing diverse and innovative plans for mitigating it. In 2019, a diverse group of major players in the plastics value chain — including companies that make, use, sell, process, collect and recycle plastics — joined forces to form the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. With more than 65 organizations on board, the Alliance’s global roster of members has committed more than USD 1 billion to projects intended to stop the flow of plastics into the environment and mitigate the damage that’s already been done.

Trash on the beach

Over 5 years, will increase the ROI of

millions

in expected sustainability investments

Reduces investment risk through

rigorous

governance processes

By investing in infrastructure and innovation, stakeholders in the plastics value chain can act as a catalyst to local efforts all around the world. By helping them close the data gap, PRISM brings this vision one step closer.
Jacob Duer
President and Chief Executive Officer, Alliance to End Plastic Waste
Empty, crumpled, blue palstic bottle
The price of plastic leakage

It was early in the summer of 2020, and Nicholas Kolesch — freshly hired as VP of Projects for the Alliance — had just arrived in Singapore, where the organization is based. On this sunny weekend, Nicholas had brought his family to the shoreline to see some of its famous mangrove forests. Even here, in a city-state equally famous for its cleanliness and order, plastic waste clung to the mangroves, whose knotty roots made them, in Nicholas’s words, the “perfect trap” for plastic. “It was sad to see such a beautiful place literally choked with plastic waste,” he says. “We knew it was coming from the sea, and we knew it was coming from a place where there is no municipal solid waste system.”

In his brief anecdote, Nicholas effectively captures how various “leaks” in the plastics value chain — an ecosystem that spans from raw materials extraction to plastic consumption and end of life — have made plastic waste a global problem. That plastic he saw? The chances are high that it, like most ocean waste worldwide, originated up a major river, tens, hundreds or even thousands of miles away, in a “hot spot” city where plastic waste management facilities are either lacking or unable to keep up with local disposal volumes.

Trah on the beach
Targeted action requires data that can be trusted
Worker sorting through garbage

While an awareness of the scope of the problem is a good starting point, what does taking action to solve it look like? Much of it comes down to investing: in physical infrastructure like recycling facilities, in innovative technologies, in cleanup efforts and in educational programs, to name a few. For the diverse plastics industry stakeholders around the world who aim to take collective, coordinated action, data is critical to guiding their efforts. They face big-picture questions, such as where are the biggest leaks in the plastics value chain around the world, and why?

But they also need to look at the nitty-gritty details at the local level to test the feasibility of projects and to determine, for example, the ideal size, scope and location of a facility. The kinds of information needed to make these analyses — ranging from existing plastic waste volumes and solid waste processing facilities to local attitudes and behavior patterns — are hard to find, and even harder to build a broad consensus of agreement on. It’s a condition Nicholas and his Alliance colleagues refer to as “the data gap.”

“There are literally thousands of data sources around the world related to the plastics value chain, and that number is constantly growing with every new study that’s published,” Nicholas explains. “But there’s also a lack of consistency across data sets and data collection methodologies, things like how plastic waste is defined and how consumption is measured. That means large-scale investment decisions, like where to build a recycling plant to mitigate plastic leakage, are being based on selectively available information with different baselines.”

It’s no trivial issue. Like all investments, investing in green infrastructure is about both risk and return. Before committing capital to a project, stakeholders need information that is both complete and trustworthy. Complete means there’s enough data to make decisions. Trustworthy means that the source — the provenance — of the data, and any related assumptions or caveats, is clear and traceable. Lack of either freezes up decision-making and thus poses a direct barrier to action.

A fast path to prototype

Within the extended global plastic community, the Alliance defines its role as a facilitator of action. In that capacity, the organization convenes its members to make collaborative decisions. And just as important, it provides the tools to make that collaboration more efficient and fruitful. In late 2020, the Alliance decided to take action to close the data gap.

It didn’t come out of nowhere. In the preceding months, the Alliance’s leaders and key members had a number of conceptual discussions about creating a kind of hub for bringing data together – a global information platform. To ensure data quality and consistency, they envisioned a filtering system that would provide rigorous controls on the data sources that were brought into the system. And they would build in analytics to amplify the value of the data to stakeholders.

Woman working on a laptop

In the course of a high-level meeting, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Dow Chemical, a major founding member of the Alliance, brought up the issue with IBM’s then CEO, Ginni Rometty. Before long, Nicholas and other Alliance leaders were engaged in brainstorming sessions with the IBM Garage™ — a framework for transformation that combines people, processes and technology. The Singapore-based team was led by Praveen Hariharan, an IBM® Consulting Partner focused on sustainability issues. “When we got into the picture, we told them we could gather a team and put together a working prototype — something they could touch and feel — in a few weeks,” says Praveen. “They wanted a fast start, so we followed the IBM Garage Methodology and made it into an MVP [minimum viable product].”

As Praveen explains, IBM and the Alliance followed an iterative approach, from the ideation stage to build and scale. “By leveraging the IBM Garage methodology — even in a completely remote working environment, spread across five regions — we were able to bring together an open, seamless set of practices with a human-centric, outcome-first approach,” he says. “By applying design thinking, agile development and DevOps tools and techniques, the entire work was executed leveraging the new ways of working.”

PRISM closes the gap
Elderly couple on the beach

The result of that effort is known as the Plastic Recovery Insight and Steering Model (PRISM). Co-created with IBM Consulting, PRISM fully realizes the Alliance’s vision of a secure place for stakeholders to convene, collaborate and innovate. The platform’s core function is to give stakeholders the data and tools they need to analyze and prioritize project opportunities anywhere in the world. To that end, it presents information to users visually, in the form of heat maps that display critical data, such as plastic leakage and waste processing capacity, at a granular geographic level.

Visual mapping is valuable because it provides decision-makers with a framework for assessing the high-level parameters of the situation in a particular region, country or city. But when it comes to making the business case for taking action, digging down into granular, high-quality data is a must. That’s why Sabine Strnad, an advisor to the Alliance who was leading the PRISM project, sees the built-in governance processes developed by IBM Consulting as the most critical aspect of the PRISM solution.

“When a report comes out, the fact that there’s no standardized way of reporting on plastic waste means there’s a lot of variation in the small details like what kind of plastic is included, what was the research used and how many households were surveyed,” says Sabine. “Failure to systematically take those differences into account undermines data credibility.”

Under the PRISM process, the proposed governance structure consists of a Governance Council, whose role is to drive strategic direction for PRISM, and to define what kind of data goes into PRISM and what new features and capabilities get built into it. Within the council are different working groups focused on data quality standards, policy and methodology, and technology.

In addition, before a data set is ingested into PRISM, a Review Group of subject matter experts examines it to understand the baselines and assign data quality scores to the data. For a community that’s committed to UN Sustainable Development goals and rightly vigilant against the infiltration of “greenwashed” data, this rigorous process helps build the trust that’s so essential.

What about when there’s a literal data gap, when a data element needed to make an investment decision doesn’t exist? It’s a common issue, with the estimated missing share of data points ranging from 60% to more than 90%. PRISM’s answer is to apply machine learning algorithms — along with augmented data sources related to economics and demographics — to fill in the gaps.

PRISM uses machine learning algorithms in IBM Watson® Studio to create archetypes of cities and regions, which are then used to estimate plastic leakage for a given place. Some of the important factors that go into this algorithm are proximity to coast, tourist population, run-off coefficient, GDP per capita, population density and policies around plastic waste management.

Using neural network-based algorithms, the Alliance has been able to model plastic leakage information for many cities in developing countries like India and Indonesia. A cloud-native solution, PRISM runs on IBM Cloud®, with the front-end portal running on IBM Cloud Foundry and Kubernetes clusters. The fact that PRISM runs on IBM Cloud means it can scale as the volume of data and users grows.

Digital tablet with world map
Building the circular economy
Adults and children cleaning up a creek

To Jacob Duer, President and CEO of the Alliance, the PRISM project fits into the Alliance’s broad mission of creating the infrastructure necessary for a “circular economy” for plastic. “Since 2019, we have been building up a pipeline of projects in various stages of implementation in different parts of the world,” says Jacob. “Project by project, our investments in innovation and infrastructure are moving us closer to plastic circularity.”

Jacob notes that Project STOP demonstrates how local solutions — following a scalable, self-sustaining model — can help to address the global problem of plastic waste proliferation. “By investing in collection and waste processing, we are reducing the risk of plastic waste leakage into the environment, while making material available for recycling to help us move from a linear make-use-dispose model, to a circular one,” says Jacob. “By helping them close the data gap, PRISM brings this vision one step closer.”

Alliance to End Plastic Waste logos

About the Alliance to End Plastic Waste

Based in Singapore, the Alliance to End Plastic WasteExternal Link is an industry-founded and funded non-governmental and non-profit organization whose goal is to promote solutions that reduce and avoid environmental pollution from plastic waste, especially in the oceans. Its founding members include BASF, Chevron Phillips Chemical, Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings, Proctor & Gamble and Shell. The Alliance announced its plans to invest USD 1.5 billion by 2024 to reduce plastic pollution and increase recycling efforts. As of September 2020, the group reported having spent USD 400 million on projects in Southeast Asia, Africa and India.

Solution components
Alliance to End Plastic Waste logos

About the Alliance to End Plastic Waste

Based in Singapore, the Alliance to End Plastic WasteExternal Link is an industry-founded and funded non-governmental and non-profit organization whose goal is to promote solutions that reduce and avoid environmental pollution from plastic waste, especially in the oceans. Its founding members include BASF, Chevron Phillips Chemical, Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings, Proctor & Gamble and Shell. The Alliance announced its plans to invest USD 1.5 billion by 2024 to reduce plastic pollution and increase recycling efforts. As of September 2020, the group reported having spent USD 400 million on projects in Southeast Asia, Africa and India.

Solution components