Like many at the start of the pandemic, I found myself awake at night feeling insecure about the future. I had recently started a new job at Ocean Conservancy managing our Urban Ocean initiative in partnership with Resilient Cities Network and The Circulate Initiative Our mission: help coastal cities around the world address plastic pollution. We had plans to travel to at least four cities in Southeast Asia and Latin America to assess their waste needs and find ways to reduce, if not eliminate, the plastic pollution littering their streets and shorelines.
That all changed when the pandemic hit.
We were all thrust into constant uncertainty, forced to focus on personal health and safety while trying to figure out how to maintain and deliver in our jobs (if we were fortunate enough to still have one). Within a few months, I could visibly see how the pandemic was negatively impacting the environment. The streets became littered with masks and my own waste and recycling bins were full of takeout containers from the local restaurants we wanted to support. Would cities have the bandwidth to face both health and environmental crises simultaneously?
And plastic pollution is indeed an environmental crisis. The most recent science estimates that plastic pollution into rivers, lakes, and the ocean could increase to as much as 53 million metric tons annually by 2030 even if current plastic reduction commitments are met. This increased figure is equivalent to about one cargo ship’s worth of plastics, by weight, entering aquatic ecosystems every single day.
Cities generally have a leading role in building and maintaining water, sanitation and waste management systems, so they are a natural partner to develop solutions in this area. Cities are also key actors in other areas critical for solving the marine plastic waste problem, including citizen education and awareness.
When travel was no longer an option and health and personal safety became everyone’s principal focus, we were thrilled to see champions and new partners emerge to continue the work safely. In fact, more cities than we initially anticipated volunteered for the program.
Six cities now make up the first Urban Ocean cohort, including Chennai, India; Can Tho, Vietnam; Malaka, Malaysia; Panama City, Panama; Pune, India; and Semarang, Indonesia.
This would not have been possible if the cities didn’t continue to prioritize the Sustainable Development Goals. As a result, they helped us find and train local implementation partners to conduct the research that would have otherwise been conducted in person by our team. Our technical experts from the University of Georgia’s New Materials Institute and Circularity Informatics Lab worked closely with local implementation partners from each city to capture the data needed. The findings from these reports were recently released and lay the groundwork to allow cities to make more data-driven decisions to tackle their plastic waste challenges.
Local Implementation Partners
- Initiatives for Regional Development and Environmental Management (IRDEM), Universitas Diponegoro, Indonesia
- Dragon Center, Climate Change Research Institute, Can Tho University, Vietnam
- Universiti Kebangsaan, Malaysia
- Centro de Estudios y Acción Social Panameño, Panama
- India Center for Environment Education, India
- Okapi Research and Advisory, India
By enhancing local capacity and fostering partnerships to advance the work after the program ends, we were able to create an even more sustainable model to achieve our common environmental and social goals. In addition, I believe the partnership has a few other characteristics that have made the Urban Ocean model a success: champions, trust, patience, and defined roles and responsibilities.
Champions are people you can rely on, either because they are truly passionate about the work, or because they are passionate about the process. Luckily, I have found that every partner organization we work with has several champions who are dedicated to our common cause of building clean, healthy cities for clean, healthy seas.
It is always advantageous to define roles and responsibilities at the onset – especially when it comes to complex partnerships with various stakeholders. I find that it is helpful to know which organization will take the lead on which pieces of work, and more specifically who is the point of contact at each organization for getting things done. It also helps to refer to roles and responsibilities over time to assess whether or not your partnership model makes sense as the project evolves.
Trust and patience are critical because in our case, most of the team members have never met in person. We often meet late at night or early in the morning (due to the nature of international work in different time zones), which means that no matter what the time, it’s inconvenient for at least part of a team. Trust that your fellow team members are doing their best to complete their work, and are doing so diligently while grappling with the many hurdles we are facing daily in our personal lives living in a pandemic. Patience is always needed in any partnership. We are all human and deserve patience and respect.
Bringing these characteristics together, the Urban Ocean partners and teammates are doubly rewarded, not only do we get to contribute to making our world a cleaner, healthier place, we also get to collaborate with people we enjoy. This has led to better collaboration and technical offerings, increased local capacity, and increasing opportunities to continue our work in the future.
Most recently we released a toolkit that combines the work and resources we have developed and captured over the past year and a half. In the future, we plan to host an Accelerator Summit in February 2022 (ideally in Singapore and in-person), where the cities can present their action plans for further partnerships and funding.
If you are interested in learning more about Urban Ocean, Ocean Conservancy, or our partners, please contact Keri.