Maintaining a focus on reducing plastic pollution while the world is battling a global pandemic might feel like a big ask at times. But that’s exactly what these five entrepreneurial, innovative businesses are doing.

Recycling plastic was an almost non-existent undertaking until relatively recently. Around 40 years ago, practically 100% of plastic products were discarded. Now, there is widespread acceptance that plastic must be disposed of carefully, in order to balance its many benefits with the needs of the global environment.

Global plastic waste by disposal, 1980 to 2015
Global plastic waste by disposal, 1980 to 2015
Image: Our World in Data

Although they operate in different parts of the world, are in different stages of growth and development, and are tackling the problem from different perspectives, these five entrepreneurs have one thing in common – a commitment to making a sustainable difference by building successful businesses that leave a lasting legacy.

1. Shwe Yamin Oo, CEO of RecyGlo

RecyGlo is a startup founded in Myanmar in 2017 by Shwe Yamin Oo, the company’s CEO and expert advisor to the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership. It has offices in Singapore and Malaysia and aims to connect local businesses with recycling companies, helping meet waste management needs in environmentally responsible ways.

“The current waste management in Myanmar is fragmented, inefficient and problematic,” Shwe said in an interview last year with E27. “Our biggest concern is that waste is not properly managed and eventually [ ends up in] rivers and oceans, thus creating massive environmental problem. We make sure waste management and recycling are easy, affordable, systematic and have minimal impact on the environment.”

The company performs waste audits and segregation, provides equipment such as bins and dumpsters, and delivers recycling awareness training. It also gives its customers access to data analytics showing how much of their waste is recycled and the impact on their carbon footprint.

RecyGlo was the recent winner of the World Economic Forum’s Ocean Solution Sprint challenge, which crowdsourced new ideas to speed up progress towards a healthy, thriving ocean.

2. Jeffrey Provencal, CEO of rePATRN

Stop worrying about health food and start worrying about all the plastic you are unwittingly consuming. That’s the message from Jeff Provencal, the founder of a Ghana-based recycling company called rePATRN and expert advisor to the Ghana National Plastic Action Partnership, a collaboration between the Government of Ghana and the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership. Provencal was born in Switzerland to Ghanain parents, and the perspective of these two different worlds has helped shape his outlook and vision.

In an interview given to Business Insider last year, he said: “Today, you see all these health trends about moringa and other superfoods. Why would you care about any of that if you’re ingesting plastic that is made out of oil? Crude oil. You’re literally eating oil.”

Sustainable Development plastic environment
At the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit 2020, Provencal joins representatives from SAP, the Government of Ghana, Dow, Coca-Cola and the Global Plastic Action Partnership to share insights on working with waste picker communities in Ghana.
Image: World Economic Forum

Growing up in a country with a major focus on recycling, Provencal was keen to take what he’d learned in Switzerland to Ghana and make a difference. That difference is, he says, about reshaping people’s attitudes – re-patterning their minds, a phrase that was the inspiration behind the name of his plastics recycling business.

“We firmly believe that by ensuring our plastic bottle flakes are used in long-lasting and high-quality products, we are able to stop people from perceiving plastic bottles as waste but as a precious and useful new resource,” the company says on its website.

RePATRN creates jobs in the Ghanian recycling sector, which Provencal sees as the first step toward formalizing a large part of the informal economy. “Those people are going to pay taxes,” he says, “which eventually will grow our economy.”

3. Kumala Susanto, CEO of Hepi Circle

Hepi Circle is a social enterprise that describes itself as Indonesia’s first refill delivery network that offers everyday cleaning products in reusable bottles. It also hopes to cut down on the use of sachet-based items, which are difficult to recycle.

Health plastic environment sustainability
Hepi Circle partners with cafes and other vendors in Surabaya to provide cleaning detergent refill stations for customers on the go.
Image: Hepi Circle

It works like this. Customers visit a store within the network, buy their usual detergent, pay a small deposit and then return their empty bottle. The bottles are returned to a central collection facility where they are cleaned and redistributed. Each return earns the customer a hepi point which can be used for discounted purchases.

Hepi Circle employs a team of women to handle refill and bottle distribution, who add to the environmental aims of the organization by travelling between stores by bicycle.

4. Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle

Szaky is another leader committed to the idea of reusing and recycling. He’s the CEO of US-based TerraCycle, which operates across Asia, Europe and the Americas. Szaky also co-chairs Consumers Beyond Disposability, a platform at the World Economic Forum that champions the large-scale adoption of solutions that transform packaging and consumer behaviour to be more sustainable.

TerraCycle has recycling facilities of its own, and runs recycling schemes for other businesses. It also has a range of zero-waste packaging boxes for use with items that are notoriously difficult to recycle – toner cartridges for printers, for example – to help reduce their overall waste footprint.

Szaky is also one of the driving forces behind the Loop Alliance, which was announced at the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Annual Meeting in Davos. Loop works with grocery retailers to offer branded and own-brand food and household items in durable, reusable packaging.

It has also recently started working with McDonald's who will be using Loop to provide reusable cups for its hot drinks. Running initially as a trial in some UK outlets of McDonald’s, the new cups will start appearing next year.

Plastic

What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Contact us to join the partnership.

5. David Stover, CEO & co-founder Bureo

Based in California, and with operations in Chile, Bureo turns plastic waste into everything from frisbees to sunglasses, preventing it from turning into marine pollution.

Its focus is on discarded fishing nets, which it describes as the most harmful form of plastic pollution.

According to Bureo: “In many cases, the problem is not the fishermen but rather the lack of infrastructure available for when the nets meet their end of life.”

The company works with fisheries and local communities to collect discarded and unwanted nets, in return for financial compensation. Those nets are then cleaned and recycled into a material Bureo calls NetPlus? – turning trash into the building blocks of new products.

It sells T-shirts, skateboards, sunglasses, frisbees and more via its website. All made from recycled fishing nets. It’s also started making a range of hats for the eco-friendly retailer, Patagonia.

“Though our focus is narrow, it’s a major piece in the puzzle to solve the plastic pollution crisis: the need for a circular economy to prevent waste from entering our oceans in the first place. We hope to extend our impact through educating communities and companies about ways to collectively work together to turn off the plastic tap,” Bureo says.