I love getting to work with changemakers who are informing the way we all think about catalyzing action and accelerating solutions to recycling’s biggest pain points. That’s why I’m pleased to share this recent conversation with Shannon Bouton, President and CEO of Delterra, an environmental nonprofit where I serve as a Member of the Board of Directors. Delterra and its flagship initiative, Rethinking Recycling, work with communities in the Global South to build inclusive and financially sustainable waste management and recycling solutions. They also partner with consumer packaged goods (CPG) and retail corporations to absorb this ethically generated supply of recycled materials on an ongoing basis at a fair price, thus breaking the cycle of insufficient supply and low demand that plagues recycling and its economics. What I like about them is their full system approach coupled with their on-the-ground impact and learning. It is rare to find organizations willing and able to deliver on both the ‘big picture thinking’ and the ‘roll up your sleeves and make it happen’ capabilities.

In our recent conversation, Shannon shared some of her insights on how CPG and retail companies can take steps to support recycling and the circular economy, that are system challenges requiring system solutions from a wide variety of actors.

RK: Shannon – Why are corporations in a position to play a leading role in combating our waste and recycling crisis?

SB: One of the biggest challenges we face is that there is a startling lack of infrastructure to collect and process waste in emerging economies around the globe. Approximately 2 billion people do not currently have access to waste management and recycling systems, and desperately need assistance to build, scale and maintain pro-recycling infrastructure in order to reduce waste-related GHG emissions, as well as the leakage of waste into the environment.

To address the waste crisis, we need collective support and investment from governments and industries. CPG companies are in a particularly unique position to play a leadership role as they can directly implement and/or support changes that will help increase participation in recycling and diverting recyclable materials from landfills and oceans.

RK: Based on your team’s on-the-ground experience, what are the critical challenges corporates can help us address?

SB: We have identified five challenges to focus on: (1) Building local markets to reduce the shipping of waste and recycled materials around the globe; (2) Investing in waste collection and recycling programs in key regions; (3) Implementing waste reduction and climate pledges; (4) Ensuring inclusive systems that eliminate waste worker exposure to unsafe working conditions and inequitable wages; and (5) Addressing food waste as a large contributing factor to our waste, recycling and climate challenges.

RK: So, let’s hear about some of the solutions. Give us some examples!

SB: The first step is we must encourage sorting, processing and distribution of recyclable materials at the local level. In Indonesia for example, it is still more profitable to ship recycled PET out of the country to higher paying markets in Europe than to sell it locally, which obviously is a lousy solution, both for the environment and the local manufacturing economy. Recycling systems must become more local – this means developing collaborative and locally adaptable solutions for both the supply and demand sides of the challenge, thus creating local markets that reliably absorb the recycled material at a fair price.

RK: What about investment needs? We’ve seen so many great ideas get initial funding, but they end up trapped forever in “pilot purgatory.” How can corporations help?

SB: We must invest in scalable infrastructure and projects to support recycling. Obviously, CPG and retail companies cannot build all of this infrastructure, but demonstration projects also won’t cut it. There are wonderful singular projects all over the world however, what is missing is the next step – a focus on scaling to drive real system-level change and sizable impact. Building scalability into project designs; testing scaling models; and helping them gain momentum is critical and will require funders like CPG companies to be willing to take risks as we figure out what works.