Why some Charities are Better than Others at Fighting Plastic Pollution

Note: I’m a student researching the root causes behind the issue of plastic pollution in the hopes of figuring out the key roadblocks in the way we solve this challenge! My team is exploring many different areas of this enormous problem and I’m writing this series of articles about our key findings. If you find this interesting and would like to see some of our other research, feel free to check out our work at theplasticshift.com

This is one of the case studies we’re creating on different organisations working in the plastic pollution space. We’re hoping to highlight the good and bad examples of what kind of work is effective in solving this massive problem, keeping in mind that there are a lot of subcategories in this issue!

This case study focuses on nonprofit organisations working to stop the impact of the plastic production economy on the environment. When it comes to organisations working to address the plastic pollution problem from this lens, there are a few examples of NGOs like The Ocean Foundation, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, or UPSTREAM.

How They Work

A key idea at several of these organisations is to take a data-driven approach to solving plastic pollution. They often focus efforts on sponsoring research on the reality of the situation to identify not just the impacts of plastics on the environment, but also the ROOT causes behind the economics of plastic production that lead to those impacts. For instance, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation has a well-thought-out vision of the transition to a more sustainable economy (Source).

This enables them to educate other organisations, individuals, and even governments on the real causes and effects of plastic pollution. For instance, UPSTREAM creates content like podcasts for consumers (individuals or businesses) to show how they can take action on plastic pollution, while the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s reports are a widely trusted source of data for almost any organisation working on this issue!

An example of UPSTREAM’s podcasts to educate consumers on plastic pollution.

A key goal for these organisations is the circular economy: the idea being that material should be able to be produced, used, and reused without introducing new waste. They have several plans for achieving this, which dive into the details of the economic reasons for how specific types of plastic (ex. plastic packaging) are used in the economy and the unique problems that need to be solved for each category of usage (Source).

This has proven to be remarkably effective in narrowing down the scope of the plastic pollution issue. It’s obvious when looking at these organisations’ work that they have specific actionables for specific stakeholders given specific data which helps them prioritise the most urgent issues we need to be working on. For instance, The Ocean Foundation has a hierarchy of how to take action on plastic pollution — with addressing the 40% of plastic waste that comes from packaging at the top (Source).

Because of this, these organisations are able to build effective partnerships with other stakeholders when it comes to the roles other organisations could play in addressing plastic pollution. This ranges from The Ocean Foundation supporting campaigns to enable Extended Producer Responsibility with manufacturers to UPSTREAM partnering with restaurants to help minimise their usage of single-use plastics.

What are the Benefits?

All of these actions are what allow these organisations to be radically more realistic and effective when it comes to solving plastic pollution in the long run. Although environmental action is needed to address plastic pollution, it is also necessary to focus on enabling the right changes to our economy to stop the flow of plastics in the first place.

Thus, their work is very important in enabling several stakeholders to take action on the issue that addresses the root causes of plastic pollution (instead of just its symptoms). As a result, these organisations can effectively partner with companies, government policymakers, etc. when it comes to influencing the direction of work on this issue.

Another key advantage they have in working with several stakeholders is the amount of specific research they support to better understand this issue. There are several complicated aspects of the sources of plastic pollution in the economy, whether it be determining how this issue affects developed vs. developing countries, the development of alternative plastics, or effective government policies on the environment. These organisations are at the cutting edge of research on this issue that enables people to actually take action on topics that aren’t immediately obvious.

What are the Limitations?

Although having a data-driven approach that enables an organisation to work with stakeholders to address the root cause of an issue sounds great, this approach isn’t very widespread right now. Often, NGOs are the types of organisations that do this work, but the majority of NGOs focus on other approaches including consumer outreach. This means that this approach to addressing plastic pollution is currently limited in scale.

Until this key limitation can be addressed, although a few organisations like the ones in this case study might be taking effective action on the issue… they will be the celebrated exception instead of the needed norm.

Then, on a more speculative note — it might also be said that given the importance of these organisations’ work and their unique approach in targeting the root causes of plastic pollution over its symptoms, funding for their efforts should be prioritised over others. Comparing the financial statements for different organisations working on this issue, however, it seems that there are a lot of factors that influence how much funding different organisations obtain that makes this claim hard to support.

There are many differences in these nonprofits, so it is hard to identify trends.

That being said, it’s important to create the right economic incentives to support organisations’ work. For organisations that focus on grantmaking and sponsoring research, it’s hard to find financial incentives to support their work asides from donations, limiting the scale of these organisations. Lessons from more financially scalable organisations might help strengthen sources of financial support (ex. from producers or consumers).

Does this Area need More Attention?

Given these organisations’ focus on supporting research on the ROOT causes of plastic pollution and the fact that their approach is the exception instead of the norm, there is room for more work in this area. Especially if that work addresses the limitations of these organisations (helping to scale their efforts and spread their research, as well as potentially working to create greater financial support for organisations like these).

It would also be beneficial to help more nonprofits (that are currently working to tackle surface-level symptoms of plastic pollution) to improve their campaigns in targeting more effective areas of the issue. For instance, instead of supporting legislative action on disposable plastic bans, more organisations could advocate for extended producer responsibility legislation (Source).

We hope to inspire more research and action on areas such as these to support these nonprofits in making their approach a new norm!

Before You Go

Hey, if you found that article interesting, feel free to check out some of my other research at theplasticshift.com. If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to get in touch with me via Linkedin.

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Madhav Malhotra

Cofounder at The Plastic Shift. Learning how to create a sustainable planet. Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/madhav-malhotra/