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Finance & Investment
How Brands Can Help Turn the Tide on Plastic Pollution in the Caribbean

Our vision is to embed effective recycling across the region’s islands and enable value-added processing of materials where it makes commercial sense — but we’ve been held back by many challenges. For businesses and brands that sell into the Caribbean, it’s an opportunity to be part of our mission and walk their talk around plastic pollution reduction and circularity.

Hot sun; sandy beaches; and warm, turquoise waters. It’s what locals, as well as 32m tourists a year, love about the Caribbean. But that pristine vision is being spoiled by waste. Tons of it.

The stats make for difficult reading. The Caribbean imports over US$1.8bn in packaged products annually, and 10 of the 30 highest per capita polluters of single-use plastics in the world are Caribbean islands. The Caribbean Sea is regarded as the second most plastic-contaminated space after the Mediterranean Sea, with estimates of plastic waste ranging from 600 to 1,414 plastic items per square kilometer.

Most islands in the region have either limited sorting and recycling facilities or none at all — which means recycling rates range from 4 to 10 percent. That leads to overflowing landfills, illegally dumped or burned waste, and rubbish finding its way into rivers and seas. The consequences are widespread — while plastic pollution in our oceans makes the headlines, it is also damaging the health of the islands and the people who live on them.

There are a number of reasons the issue hasn’t been tackled effectively. Established recyclers are undercapitalized; and many attempting to make ends meet in waste sectors that are overly political, inefficient and sometimes corrupt. They also battle with poor economies of scale, a lack of investment in vital infrastructure and high shipping costs. At the government level, policy change is painstakingly slow and there is limited knowledge of recyclables management.

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But the wider truth is, many brands that tout their sustainability credentials continue to skirt responsibility for thousands of tons of plastic that goes straight into Caribbean landfills. Addressing the problem will take more than a few bottle-return schemes and the occasional ban on single-use plastics.

Establishing effective recycling systems is tough

As a long-established investor in Caribbean commodity supply chains, we at Windward Commodities are eager to contribute to the solution. That’s why we’ve founded CARE Caribbean in partnership with All Caribbean — a recycled materials trader and consulting firm. Our vision is to embed effective recycling across the region’s islands and enable value-added processing of materials where it makes commercial sense.

In practice, this means supplying fit-for-purpose sorting and baling equipment on each island and training people to use it, establishing education programmes in businesses and schools, and rolling out a waste-tech solution to track and trace materials to their end use.

But we’ve been held back by a number of challenges.

Investors are risk averse

We created a detailed regional plan — including feedback from recyclers, cruise liners, hotels, supermarkets and shipping companies on material volumes and challenges. We specified and sourced equipment, modelled (ever increasing) shipping costs and engaged solid-waste management authorities. We were excited. But, despite interest from major development banks, there simply wasn’t enough live data for them to take investment forward.

And even if that data did exist, we were stuck. Everyone recognises that something needs to be done; but nobody is willing to take risk in the sector without a major private-sector investor to back the minimum lending ticket of more than US$20m the banks require.

Local solutions aren’t always profitable

We turned for funding to companies that import and sell huge quantities of products into the region. They were interested in the potential of a profitable operation once it had been proven in a pilot. But that interest didn’t extend to smaller islands.

Effectively tackling regional challenges requires local solutions, even when they aren’t commercially attractive. The only way to make that work is through region-wide investment, and that’s not on the cards right now.

Grants are a grind

As a high-risk, high-impact opportunity with real potential, applying for grant funding was our next option. From experience, we know this is an arduous and opaque process. It’s time consuming and often involves considering complex, academic information to satisfy key criteria that has limited practical or commercial value. In one case we waited for more than five months to receive a one-line email. We’ve had some success here, but it is a long process that doesn’t lend itself to nimble action.

Urgency is often lacking

We managed to secure support for equipment for a pilot project on a small island where there is no recycling. We drafted a contract with the local solid waste management authority and involved a fantastic NGO to carry out sorting and recycling operations on the ground. But after seven months attempting to get the equipment up and running with the authority, the project stalled. We hope to have it back on track soon, but there is little urgency on the ground from local government.

Brands can play their part

Amid the difficulties, there is cause for optimism. The key lesson we’ve learned is that developing strong relationships with the private sector is critical. We’ve begun doing that locally, regionally and internationally.

For example, we’re working with an international hotel chain, whose management team are committed to action. It’s a small step on the way to the huge shifts needed in education, infrastructure and policy across the region; but one change is often the trigger for many more.

We’ve found that accessing private-sector support and independent funding accelerates change, partly because it avoids local politics and bureaucracy. And once established, recycling facilities are visible and positive additions to communities. They build momentum by attracting interest and sponsorship from businesses and can become centres for engagement and learning.

Where good recyclers exist, we can scale them up. Where they don’t, companies and partnerships can be formed. Solid-waste authorities in the region are keen to work with companies that bring cash and experience, since they have little to spare themselves. In return, they keep the flow of material coming — which is vital in a sector in which margins are tight and volume is critical.

Despite the challenges, we’re not giving up. CARE Caribbean continues working to establish simple recycling and sorting operations. But in a region where we’re often starting from scratch, we need investment to make this happen quickly. For businesses and brands that sell into the Caribbean, that’s an opportunity to become part of our vital mission and walk their talk around plastic pollution reduction and circularity.