Partnerships, Politics, & Plastic Pollution: A Conversation with Rob Kaplan on Reducing Ocean Plastics
“I’ve never seen this kind of political and public sector engagement in an environmental topic happen so fast,” said Rob Kaplan, the Founder and CEO of Circulate Capital in an interview with Ambassador David Balton following a recent Wilson Center event on reducing marine plastic pollution. Interest in reducing ocean plastics has gone from a blip on the radar at ocean conferences to “now becoming a top priority,” said Kaplan.
After working on sustainability initiatives in the private sector for roughly a decade, Kaplan transitioned to researching strategies to reduce ocean plastics. Eventually, he founded Circulate Capital, an investment management firm with two goals. “First, we want to invest in companies that prevent plastic pollution,” he said. These companies “collect, sort, process, and even manufacture using plastic waste that would ultimately otherwise end up in the environment.” The company also helps a variety of investors, in both the public and private sectors, allocate more capital to reduce marine plastic pollution.
Circulate Capital has already attracted more than $100 million in corporate investment from PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Danone, and Dow. However, when it comes to making loans to recycling companies in regions of the world that are the largest producers of plastic pollution, Kaplan realized that the private sector could do only so much alone. “We’re working in really tricky geographies, where nobody has done this before, and that just equates to financial risk,” he said.
To absorb some of the risk and create a bigger impact together, Circulate Capital and USAID launched a new partnership. For every loan made to a recycling company in an emerging market, USAID provides a credit guarantee, thereby reducing the risk for corporate investors.
Galvanizing Political Will
The interest in fighting ocean plastics is growing both in the United States and internationally. Even in this immensely polarized time, the issue has bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, Kaplan noted. The Save Our Seas Act was one of the few pieces of bipartisan legislation passed by Congress last year, let alone passed unanimously. “The political will is there,” Kaplan said. “There is nobody really for plastic waste. It hasn’t become politicized.” At the Wilson Center event, Senator Whitehouse (D- RI) said that he and Senator Sullivan (R-AK) are working together on an even larger bill to protect the ocean.
Private sector companies are trying to be part of the solution, said Kaplan. “I think most companies agree that they don’t want their packaging ending up in the environment,” he said. “They don’t want animals eating it. They don’t want it polluting people’s waterways and their livelihoods on the ground in the communities where they’d like to do business.”
When asked what was next for the partnership, Kaplan said that his company plans to invest $100 million in companies in the next three or four years, demonstrate proof of concept, and attract more capital. Ultimately, he said, much more must be invested to combat ocean plastic pollution. “We need many billions of dollars deployed into this space as quickly as possible,” he said.