As COP26 leaders meet in Glasgow in two weeks’ time to look for ways to take joint action that can mitigate the effects of climate change, one important area they need to address is plastic pollution. While ocean plastic seems at first glance to be an environmental crisis completely separate from climate change, new studies confirm exactly the opposite: plastic pollution contributes to climate change. And now, thanks to a new research tool, we can for the first time precisely measure the extent to which improved plastic waste management reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Here is how.

We have known for some time that the climate-related effects of waste management are significant. When I focused on investing in recycling infrastructure in the US – be it at Walmart
or the Closed Loop Fund – I relied on the US EPA’s WARM tool to translate these projects and opportunities into clear greenhouse gas reductions. This knowledge has turned into meaningful, actionable information for investors of all stripes.

However, scientists have reported that most of the plastic that enters the environment comes from a handful of countries in Asia, and we haven’t been able to quantify how reducing plastic waste in that region could lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions. This is because countries like India and Indonesia have specific waste collection methods and end-of-life scenarios like open landfill, unmanaged landfill, landfill in water, open incineration, cement kiln and incineration.

But that’s up to now. Asia now has its first tool that can estimate the GHG impact of plastic waste management. This work was published this fall by The Circulate Initiative (full disclosure, my corporate not-for-profit partner) based on the findings of a paper issued by Circulate Capital and the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech), a unit of the Singapore Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A * STAR).

PLACES – Plastic Lifecycle Assessment Calculator for the Environment and Society, inspired by the US EPA’s WARM tool, is a first of its kind with the ability to assess the climate impact of current waste management practices in Asia, from open incineration to recycling. Plastic waste is everyone’s problem, and so this tool is designed as an open source prototype calculator that tracks greenhouse gas emissions reduction, energy and water savings from waste management and recycling solutions that prevent plastic pollution in India and Indonesia.

What that means for investors and for our planet

The introduction of the PLACES tool comes at a critical time. With growing pressure to limit global warming to 1.5 ° C, as called for in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2021 Sixth Assessment Report, countries are calling for emerging economies like India and Indonesia to drastically reduce emissions. A new Deloitte study found that Southeast Asia could lose $ 28 trillion in services, tourism, and manufacturing if it doesn’t respond quickly to climate change.

The new GHG tool should give climate investors the juice they need to accelerate solutions for plastic waste. With the tool, investors can now precisely measure the extent to which a deal generates quantifiable environmental benefits in the form of newly disposed of plastic and other waste that no longer ends up in the environment and the reduction / avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions.