Morgan Stanley
  • Institute for Sustainable Investing
  • Mar 15, 2022

Morgan Stanley’s Plastic Waste Researcher on State of the Crisis

Dr. Jenna Jambeck, an award-winning environmental engineer and now Morgan Stanley’s Plastic Waste Resolution Senior Researcher, speaks about her work on the plastic waste crisis and the path to possible solutions.

When Morgan Stanley launched its Plastic Waste Resolution in 2019, we knew that reducing the waste problem would require an integrated approach that brought together science, industry, capital and government. After all, it’s a huge problem: plastic accounts for 85% of all marine litter—and by 2040 the world will be adding up to 37 million metric tons of plastic waste into the ocean per year, with a potential $100 billion in annual financial risks posed to businesses, according the UN Environment Programme.1

For our part, Morgan Stanley resolved to help prevent, reduce and remove 50 million metric tons of plastic waste by 2030. Since the start of the Plastic Waste Resolution almost three years ago, the firm has reached more than 5 million metrics tons of this overall goal, by mobilizing commercial solutions, engaging in key partnerships and reducing plastic in our own operations.

Now, to ensure that our commitment to reducing plastic waste has hard science at its core, we’ve named Dr. Jenna Jambeck, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University of Georgia, our first Plastic Waste Resolution Senior Researcher. Jambeck is an award-winning scientist with more than 20 years of experience focusing on solid waste and marine debris issues. She recently spoke to our Chief Sustainability Officer, Audrey Choi, about how corporations, citizens and systems-thinking can help stem the plastic waste crisis.

Audrey Choi: Plastic is so ubiquitous that geologists are saying plastic waste will be our era’s most lasting impact on the planet. Your research delves into how waste impacts communities and families. For example, you shared a photo of a mother and child in South Asia sitting on a mountain of plastic that Europeans thought they had recycled. What can you tell us about these impacts? What does your research, including your recent study with the National Academies of Sciences, Medicine and Engineering (NAS), tell us about the scale of the problem?

Dr. Jenna Jambeck: The NAS report highlights the export of plastic scrap to lower-income countries that generate maybe an eighth of the plastic that we do in the U.S. India is one, and I was part of a National Geographic expedition along the Ganges River, which found that 1-3 billion microplastic fragments were discharged from that river into the Bay of Bengal every day. The problem is complicated, though. You can’t forget about the informal sector, where people collect plastic items of value for their livelihood, including in Vietnam where that photo was taken. Our goals for change must be inclusive of these groups.

Women removing bar codes and stickers by hand from clear film plastics imported from Europe at an informal recycling village outside of Hanoi, Vietnam. Source: Dr. Jenna Jambeck

Choi: What is the role of corporations in dealing with this crisis and advancing innovation? IKEA, for example, is replacing Styrofoam with packaging made of mushrooms that can be reused or biodegraded. Are such bio-alternatives scalable?

Jambeck: Solutions like IKEA’s are exciting, but we can’t think of them in a vacuum. We need a bigger-picture, systems approach to change, based on green chemistry and green engineering principles, two concepts that my research uses. Alternative materials are part of the solution but so is preventing waste in the first place.

Choi: This brings us to Morgan Stanley’s role, which we see as mobilizing finance for systemic solutions. All the entities in the plastics value chain—chemical and consumer goods companies, governments, individuals—are our clients. Since launching our Plastic Waste Resolution in 2019, we’ve acted as joint underwriter for the IPO of threadUP, which reduces plastic waste from fast fashion; we’ve worked with Pepsi to reduce virgin plastic in their supply chain; and we launched a popular product for individual investors focused on plastic reduction. We are also thrilled to partner with you. How has our collaboration made a difference to your work?

Jambeck: Morgan Stanley’s support of Debris Tracker, a free mobile app for citizen scientists to log litter, has helped us expand the initiative tremendously in recent years. Over 5 million items have been recorded globally, helping us track plastic waste flows and impacts. Part of my role with Morgan Stanley is also to experiment, and one way we’ve done that is to put GPS trackers on a plastic bottle in the Mississippi River. It hitchhiked from St. Louis to Baton Rouge attached to a barge, providing unexpected evidence of how U.S. barge traffic is moving plastic debris around.

Dr. Jambeck picks up and logs litter with the mobile app Debris Tracker. Source: Dorothy Kozlowski, University of Georgia

Choi: Sometimes the plastic waste crisis can feel so overwhelming, but it’s refreshing to know that there are dedicated people like yourself advancing thinking on how we tackle this at a systemic level. I’m really looking forward to hearing more about your future insights.

Morgan Stanley funding helps facilitate Dr. Jambeck’s research and distribute its insights. Learn more about the Morgan Stanley Plastic Waste Resolution.