Charting Progress in 2023: USAID’s Highlights in Tackling Ocean Plastics
“There are 21,000 pieces of plastic in the ocean for each person on Earth,” a somber headline in the Washington Post reminded the public in 2023. To respond to this environmental crisis, United Nations member states are negotiating a legally binding, international agreement to end plastic pollution, with the second and third negotiating sessions held in Paris, France, and Nairobi, Kenya, in May and November 2023, and with a final agreement expected next year. In the meantime, USAID continues partnering with countries and communities to stop the flow of plastic waste into the ocean. USAID’s Save Our Seas initiative has prevented the equivalent of close to 8 billion bottles of plastics (more than 73,500 metric tons) from polluting our environment and we are creating practical solutions and building local capacity to enable countries to implement their obligations under the new international agreement.
In 2023, USAID’s Save Our Seas initiative announced new resources and new programs to tackle ocean plastic pollution.
- Celebrating USAID’s Save Our Seas initiative’s first full year. Sponsors of the bipartisan Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, Senators Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), joined USAID in marking the one-year milestone of the Save Our Seas initiative, which is funding programs in 14 countries and regions across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean and Pacific islands. Collectively, these countries and regions represent 40 percent of total global mismanaged plastic waste. In 2023, USAID’s Save Our Seas Initiative initiated new country partnerships in key countries, including in India, Indonesia and Vietnam. Read more in the Save Our Seas Initiative Annual Report.
- Supporting key national policy reforms, such as Extended Producer Responsibility, and sharing lessons learned in the global negotiations. After seven years of implementing in-country programs, it is increasingly clear that delivering on global goals to reduce ocean plastic pollution will require a public-private collaboration. With support from USAID, the Kenyan Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) has brought together more than 100 private sector leaders, industry experts, formal and informal waste sector representatives, government officials, and development partners to foster a productive dialogue on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a system driven by the private sector to improve recyclability of plastic packaging and increase recovery. A key component of the global plastic treaty is to develop and implement inclusive EPR systems. USAID’s global flagship program under the Save Our Seas initiative, “Clean Cities, Blue Ocean,” released a case study, Extended Producer Responsibility: A System for a Circular Economy with a model that uses experiences and lessons learned from supporting national governments to develop and implement EPR systems.
In Sri Lanka, USAID helped design, develop, and implement an EPR system that provides a policy and legislative cornerstone in enabling a circular economy. Beyond drafting regulations, USAID coalesced stakeholders around a tailored EPR roadmap, helped pilot EPR recovery systems for two major types of plastics, and developed a robust online reporting portal, which has helped track the recovery of more than 2,600 tons of plastics.
- Partnering with 74 private sector companies and pooling funds with allies for greater innovation and impact. U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, Meg Whitman commended the Mombasa Plastics Prize, co-funded by USAID and the Government of Canada, for bringing companies and governments together in support of 60 Kenyan youth innovators to tackle marine plastic pollution. In Sri Lanka, industry leaders and the country’s National Innovation Agency participated in a Demo Day and Innovation Trade Show that unveiled groundbreaking solutions incubated by a USAID grantee and now receiving industry support for product development.
USAID’s technical assistance is also enabling private sector funds to be invested in infrastructure that is improving and expanding recycling capacity. In 2023, the Indonesian company Milion Limbah contributed more than $2.2 million to establish an aggregation and recycling center as part of a factory to offtake plastic waste, especially low-value plastics (other than PET), locally in Ambon, Indonesia. Elsewhere in Indonesia, USAID and Circulate Capital’s blended finance partnership has helped Prevented Ocean Plastic Indonesia (POPI) to double its collection capacity for high-quality and traceable recycled plastic and create more than 160 green jobs with better livelihoods and safer working conditions. This is part of USAID’s larger partnership with Circulate Capital, which has mobilized more than $100 million in investments from leading U.S. and international businesses to increase recycling capacity in South and Southeast Asia. Building on their successes in Asia, Circulate Capital announced in May 2023 that they will be expanding to Latin America.
- Building the capacity of nearly 600 cities, microenterprises, and local organizations to manage waste more efficiently. USAID’s global flagship program under the Save Our Seas Initiative, “Clean Cities, Blue Ocean,” is directly supporting 25 cities in 10 countries to strengthen their waste management systems with expanded and more efficient collection routes, improved aggregation of recyclables, innovative river trash traps, and safer disposal sites.
Beyond this on-the-ground assistance, Clean Cities Blue Ocean has trained individuals from nearly 60 countries through its Virtual Training Hub. This free online, publicly available platform hosts trainings, webinars, and online resources on topics, such as siting and designing sanitary landfills, solid waste planning, material recovery facility operations, and identifying funding options for improving waste systems.
Among the tools made available through the training hub is the Solid Waste Capacity Index for Local Governments (SCIL), which enables local governments to self-assess their strengths and weaknesses with respect to waste management. The SCIL has been piloted in four languages in 20 cities across ten countries; with national governments seeking to adopt and replicate the SCIL approach to more cities in their countries. Access the SCIL tool here, and see the CCBO engagement hub for trainings, webinars, and videos.
- Empowering 700+ women in waste management. USAID’s Women in Waste’s Economic Empowerment (WWEE) activity offers women in the Philippines and Indonesia a comprehensive training program, including personal empowerment and gender-based violence (GBV) prevention, and a small business incubator program to become successful entrepreneurs in the waste sector. A WWEE graduate, Riza Santoyo, was able to double her income and build her family’s savings by expanding her door- to-door waste collection business, even while working fewer hours. Riza and other WWEE participants reported newfound confidence to share their ideas with others, form relationships with their peers, and trust themselves. Because of the supportive atmosphere that WWEE training creates, many participants have discussed their GBV experiences for the first time. To date, more than 700 women have graduated from the program and 96 women have received grants to expand 61 businesses. Together, they have prevented an estimated 190 metric tons of waste from entering the environment.
Globally, it is estimated that over half of all recycled plastic is collected by informal waste collectors and the Clean Cities, Blue Ocean program is engaging with informal waste collectors to make sure they have the tools and resources to successfully integrate in the circular economy. The program ensures that waste workers (many of whom are women) are valued for the services they provide and have a voice in the decisions that impact them. Read more at Empowering Informal Waste Workers.
- Promoting new mindsets to reduce single-use plastics. Improving solid waste management often requires businesses and people to change their long-held habits. Through the Save Our Seas Initiative, USAID is collaborating with partners in rapidly urbanizing cities to promote evidence-based social and behavior change. The academic journal Practicing Anthropology devoted its entire Spring 2023 Issue to highlighting USAID’s social and behavior change approaches to reduce plastic pollution. One example is how USAID’s grantee in the Maldives researched and piloted the use of viable alternatives to single-use plastics.
In 2024, USAID will be announcing a major new public-private sector partnership that builds on USAID’s work to date, including support to local enterprises, empowering women in the waste sector, and advancing inclusive and implementable EPR systems. Stay tuned for this and other exciting new developments under the Save Our Seas Initiative by signing up for USAID’s Ocean Plastics newsletter here.