An integrated approach makes sure plastics never become waste

It’s hard to imagine a world without plastics – a unique material that plays a critical role in maintaining food quality, health and safety. Plastics are not only convenient and cheap to produce, but also embedded in cross-continental production, distribution and trade.

On the flip side: 8 million tonnes of plastics end up in our oceans every year and 50 percent of annual production is single-use plastics.

Plastic waste in Banc D'Arguin National Park, Mauritania. Photo: UNDP/Freya Morales.

With the global demand for plastics estimated to quadruple from 2020 to 2050, one thing is clear: there is no single solution that can tackle this complex challenge. The path forward will require integrated solutions that address entire systems of connected economic, social and environmental aspects. Sustainable responses could include R&D on alternative materials, a shift in consumption patterns and mindsets, reforms in waste management, new technologies for recycling, and ultimately new growth models.


Almost half of all plastics produced globally originates from Asia and the region is responsible for over 80 percent of plastic waste ending up in our oceans. The waste ‘epidemic’ and its (mis)management is at the epicenter of a growing public outcry, and has led to import bans on waste recyclables and single-use plastics throughout the region.

80 percent of ocean plastic pollution comes from Asia. Photo: UNDP Tuvalu/Aurélia Rusek.

Can this be an opportunity for Asia to become a hotbed of innovation that will inform solutions in other parts of the world? A unique partnership between UNDP and Canada’s Alberta CoLab initiative will explore this by looking at how an integrated approach might accelerate progress on the waste challenge and boost gains across the Sustainable Development Goals. Key to this work is busting two myths around plastic waste management:

Myth busting 1: A ‘magic bullet’ solution can fix a complex challenge

Political pressure to act often drives single point solutions. Applying behavioral insights to nudge consumers away from plastics; engaging citizens in reporting illegal waste dumps; developing waste banks; and supporting start-up technology innovations, are a few examples. While demonstrating a varying degree of success, they are all singular, disconnected interventions that seek to fix a complex problem without much discussion on unintended consequences or systematic solutions.

Recyclers’ associations contribute to greening economies. Photo: UNDP Peru/Omar Lucas.

Myth busting 2: Plastics Pollution is an Asian problem

Top plastics waste exporters must consider their role and responsibilities in cleaning up plastics that currently flood Asia. For example, about 12 percent of Canada’s plastic waste is shipped out of North America to be ‘recycled.’ Most of the export is sent to Southeast Asia, where proper waste infrastructure is lacking, and recyclables are often dumped or incinerated. Many countries, including China, are now refusing waste imports. Developments like these present risks – and opportunities – for international companies in the plastics sector, which have a critical role in transforming the way we produce and use this material. They also highlight how truly interconnected the challenge is: plastic waste in not an isolated problem we can contain to one country or sector of society.


That’s why we at the UNDP Regional Innovation Center in Asia and the Pacific together with the Canadian Alberta CoLab are exploring what it would take to design a system where plastics never become waste. We go about this using systemic design principles. This includes mapping the challenge and the needs of stakeholders, setting out a vision for the future we want to be in, designing a portfolio of possible solutions together with experts from all walks of life, and testing these in Vietnam, Maldives, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Systemic design draws on expertise from all walks of life. Photo: UNDP Asia-Pacific.

The system will rely on circular economy strategies so that the plastic constantly flows in a closed loop without losing value rather than being used only once. A research initiative on the circular economy will run parallel in Alberta to prevent the ’magic bullet’ trap and build a deeper, integrated understanding of how local and international systems work together.

Placing the Asia challenge into the larger global picture allows both the upstream parts (waste generation) of the plastic value chain and the downstream side (imports of recyclables) to be explored and challenged. A process of sensemaking will be applied across locations so that we can identify patterns and adjust our design accordingly.

The four stages of tackling the plastics challenge. Photo: UNDP/Shumin Liu

The international partnership will also facilitate the opportunity to experiment with, and potentially scale solutions across regions. 

 Alex Oprunenco, Regional Innovation Specialist at UNDP
Twitter: @AlexOprunenco @UNDPasiapac @SDGintegration

With thanks to Keren Perla, Director, Energy Transition and Policy Innovation (Alberta CoLab)