Reducing waste and elevating livelihoods

By Matt Kopac, Associate Director, Health and Beauty Sustainability

When the monsoons hit Kerala, India, the water and the plastic flows. The materials that are littered in neighborhoods and on roadways are swept downhill into one of the 47 rivers that extend from the Ghats mountains to the Arabian Sea.

The Odaw River in Accra, Ghana, is a site of human and ecological destitution. It’s so polluted from plastic waste and other pollutants that the river is dead, and the ocean at the river’s point of exit is a dingy grey. An illegal slum of thousands of residents sits right on its shores.

These scenes are common in the world’s global south, where underdeveloped infrastructure isn’t able to properly manage waste flows. The health consequences of mismanaged waste are stark: Littered waste can block drains, cause flooding, and spread disease, and poison wildlife. If burned, waste releases dangerous toxins into the air.

In the face of these challenges, countries rely on waste workers, often informal laborers, to make a dent in the waste. The waste workers — largely women — help clean up their communities and ecosystems, bringing health and hope to their family and neighbors. But it’s not enough.

It was against this backdrop that I visited India and Ghana in the spring to kick off our Burt’s Bees partnership with rePurpose Global, an organization dedicated to reducing waste, reviving lives and restoring nature’s balance. We forged the partnership as part of our goal to be Net Zero Plastic to Nature by 2025.

This goal starts with innovation and the transformation of our packaging portfolio. Burt’s Bees already uses 50% post-consumer recycled content in our packaging, and we’re working to reduce our reliance on virgin plastic and fiber by another 50% by 2030. We’re also working toward 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging. But all this takes time. In the meantime, we’ve committed to recover and recycle as much virgin packaging as we have remaining in our portfolio. We estimate this will amount to about 1.5 million pounds per year by 2025.

In India, Burt’s Bees is investing in a social enterprise that is creating dignified work while addressing the massive health and environmental impacts of waste. Green Worms takes communities with no or very limited recycling collection and sets up public-private partnerships with local governments and village councils, educates residents about the importance of recycling, and transforms local economies. Where previously the only option was dumping or burning household waste, Green Worms established a door-to-door collection business where women collectors manage monthly household subscriptions. Residents dispose of their organic materials in their yards and store their plastics, glass and metals until their next monthly visit by a collector. The materials are sorted, processed and sold into secondary materials marketplaces.

I traveled to multiple sites in India, including a sorting facility in the village of Agricole, where I visited with 36 segregators. Jalsa, the head of the women’s cooperative employed at the facility, explained that the facility focused on mixed flexible plastics, sorting them into specific streams before baling and sending them off for coprocessing. Thanks to the joint intervention by rePurpose Global and Green Worms, the women’s incomes are well above a standard Indian blue-collar wage. This is driven largely by plastic credit financing, which provides a premium for multilayered plastic, thus shifting the economics and making collection worthwhile.   

In Ghana, Burt’s Bees is supporting a social enterprise that recovers waste from communities close to the ocean. Coliba operates buyback centers that provide cash payments for PET bottles collected from the environment. Through our investment, Coliba is able to shift the economics and make it worthwhile for people to collect and recycle plastic water bottles. This may seem somewhat surprising, as PET plastic water bottles are among the most recyclable items in the U.S. and countries around the world. In India, for example, it is rare to see a plastic bottle on the street, even amid piles of other trash, because its value is greater than the cost to collect and recycle it. There is a market for it.

This is not the case in Ghana. Walking along the beach, the need is so stark. The beaches are strewn with plastic water bottles and illegal dump sites; all types of trash dot the coastline. However, as a result of rePurpose Global’s intervention, collectors are now beginning to walk the beaches, neighborhoods and roadways to collect bottles. In doing so, they’re also supporting their families’ livelihoods.

One buyback center sits close to the beach in the village of Kokrobite. The site is managed by a young entrepreneur, Vaida. She has two staff members, Felicia and Eunice. The women are charged with removing and sorting caps and labels, both of which can also be recycled along with the bottles. Juliet leads a similar facility in the beachfront community of Osu. The bottles are then bundled and sent to a material recovery facility north of Accra. At this facility, a group of 26 (mostly women), led by site manager Mercy, processes the PET into flakes for sale on the international market. Prior to Coliba’s arrival, the workers had no job opportunities. Thanks to rePurpose and Coliba, they now earn well above the Ghanian minimum wage.

I think what I appreciated most was the sense of pride that the women on the frontline had in their work. The income from the work was incredibly meaningful for their families, yes, and they also found meaning as agents of change to protect their neighbors’ health and clean up the environment in and around their communities. The level of pollution was overwhelming at times, but visiting with the local waste workers gave me hope that if we all support and center their work, we can really make a difference. By going beyond our innovation efforts to support recovery and recycling, brands like Burt’s Bees can contribute meaningfully to the health and livelihoods of people around the world.