In an effort to combat climate change and reduce plastic waste, Estée Lauder Companies’ charitable wing, the ELC Charitable Foundation, has partnered with Plastics for Change to improve the livelihoods of waste collectors in India while diverting ocean-bound plastics.
Plastic pollution is a major contributor to the climate crisis and environmental toxicity, and resolving issues related to the material’s end of life through recycling can be one of the most effective solutions to the global plastics challenge. The partnership between the Estée Lauder Companies Charitable Foundation (ELCCF) and Bangalore-based nonprofit Plastics for Change leverages plastic recycling as both an environmental solution and as a lifeline for destitute waste collectors, offering pathways out of poverty while empowering frontline communities to protect the environment.
Waste pickers: Frontline allies in the right against plastic pollution
Waste pickers salvage reusable and recyclable materials that have been discarded in streets, landfills and informal dumpsites. They account for 15-20 percent of total recyclables collected annually; and because most of this waste is collected in nations with underdeveloped waste-management systems, the waste they collect would likely have ended up in the environment.
According to Plastics for Change CEO Andrew Almack, formal waste-management systems are virtually nonexistent in developing economies such as India. Developing nations bear the brunt of plastic waste and associated petrochemical pollution, and it’s often the very people in these frontline and fenceline communities that are tasked with keeping plastic in the economy and out of the ocean.
In India, plastic that would otherwise flow into oceans and waterways is predominantly collected by marginalized waste-pickers who lack basic human rights including social security; and access to nutritious foods, education or healthcare. The problem is particularly apparent in Hubli, India, where the PFC and ELCCF partnership has invested.
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“Due to the pervasive nature of the caste system in India, the task of waste collection carries a stigma and falls on the most disadvantaged people groups, who have been performing this task for generations,” Almack says. “Waste pickers are highly informal and some of the poorest people in the world, lacking basic human rights and barriers to formal employment.”
Through ELCCF’s support, Plastics for Change will be able to:
Set up an independent plastic collection site at Hubli to expand fair trade principles and enable greater transparency, accountability and social change for women and marginalized communities involved in plastic collection
Help support the collection of 1.3 million pounds of plastic annually
Increase the social and economic opportunity for 1,000 waste pickers, strengthening local recycling infrastructure while also supporting the livelihoods of the workers involved.
ELCCF can’t disclose the grant amount given to PFC, but the Foundation made a total of $64.6 million in donations in FY21. The grant is part of an ongoing partnership between ELC and PFC; and though plastic recovered from the Hubli site won’t enter ELC’s value chain, the collaboration represents ELC’s commitment to supporting the livelihoods of waste pickers and developing long-term solutions for ocean plastic waste.
PFC’s holistic development approach is based on trade-and-aid: On the one hand, PFC enables fair and sustainable working conditions through a robust process of training, on-time payments, access to banking technology, and markets for recycled material. On the humanitarian end, the organization provides opportunities for continued education, skill development, financial literacy, social security, and housing assistance.
“We're bringing behavior change in communities and challenging the status quo of exploitation through indenturing,” Almack said. “We recognise that while trade plays a critical role to build communities, we also need to support other social development opportunities for waste-picker families to bring holistic change.”
Leading by example
The Estée Lauder Companies’ products have been a mainstay for discerning consumers for 76 years. Plastic plays a central role in safely and durably preserving ELC products; but convenience and durability have a price — and ELC is well aware of the significant impacts of plastics in its value chain.
“As a beauty company, plastic is a material that helps us safely store cosmetics,” said Nancy Mahon, SVP of Global Corporate Citizenship and Sustainability at ELC. “We know that plastic is among the most pressing sustainability issues today, and we are committed to taking action through our commitments and efforts both internally and externally. … When we look to address the challenges associated with it, it’s about reduction of virgin plastic use and an increase in PCR [post-consumer recycling] innovations.”
ELC seeks to lead the prestige beauty industry in scaling sustainable packaging for discerning consumers. The company aims to reduce the social and climate impact of plastic with both upstream and downstream solutions to reduce plastic at the source and capture waste as input for new materials.
The company set an enterprise-wide packaging goal to cut virgin plastic in packaging by at least 50 percent by 2030. In the short term, ELC is focused on achieving 75-100 percent recyclable, reusable, recycled or recoverable packaging by 2025. To this end, the company is redesigning its packaging for recyclability and refillability, as well as reducing or eliminating superfluous and non-recyclable packaging. At the end of FY21, the company was 59 percent toward reaching its 2025 goal — including already meeting its 2025 post-consumer recycled material goals by over two percentage points. That goal met, ELC set a more ambitious goal of 25 percent PCR material in its packaging by 2025.
ELCCF’s partnership with PFC is part of the company’s broader corporate responsibility portfolio driving Estée Lauder Companies’ “beauty inspired, values driven” strategy. ELCCF provides annual grants to organizations in the US and across the globe in alignment with the Foundation’s key three pillars: Health, education and the environment. Since 2016, ELCCF has supported programs at the intersection of climate justice, women’s empowerment and social equity.
“We are incredibly grateful for partners like The Estée Lauder Companies Charitable Foundation, who have come alongside us in making a meaningful impact towards people and planet,” Almack said.
The plastic problem is not something to be solved in silos, he said. Working with mission-aligned partners such as ELCCF is critical in empowering grassroot organizations such as Plastics for Change in scaling their solutions.
But mission-aligned support is just the first step, Almack says. Companies need to invest in packaging innovation, a goal ELC is working toward through a network of collaborators to help advance collective approach to more responsible packaging.
And finally, there’s consumer engagement.
“Helping consumers make wise choices in their buying decisions through honest and transparent communication is essential to bringing change,” Almack said.