COVID is a crisis for our oceans, too

By Jacob Batchelor with contribution from Shannon Bouton.

You drink a bottle of water. Use a plastic fork for takeout. Toss a single-use mask. Each of these individual acts are small, seemingly harmless. But taken collectively, it adds up. To a lot. 

“Somewhere around 11 million metric tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean each year,” says Shannon Bouton who leads the Rethinking Recycling initiative as Global Executive Director of Sustainable Communities at “That works out to more than a full dump truck of plastic, every minute of every day.” 

Rethinking Recycling, the flagship program of the Firm-founded nonprofit, is working to address this problem by partnering with everyone from waste workers to multinational companies to increase recycling around the world. McKinsey News spoke to Shannon to learn more—and how the challenge has only increased since the start of the pandemic. 

Jacob: Can you give us a sense of the scale of the plastic problem in our oceans? 

Shannon: Pew recently released a report saying that—without action—the 11 million metric tonnes per year will about triple by 2040. Someone did the math, and that’s equivalent to 110 pounds, or 50 kilograms, of plastic waste per meter of coastline around the world. 

Landfill just outside of Bali’s capital city Denpassar. It’s currently at capacity.

Jacob: I’ll try to imagine that the next time I’m at the beach. 

Shannon: It’s terrible. If we stay on this course, plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050. You can already see sea life, from birds to whales, washing up on beaches with bellies full of it.  

And unfortunately, all that plastic doesn’t go away. It breaks down into smaller pieces called microplastics. And microplastics are everywhere—in the deepest parts of the ocean, in remote deserts, even inside us. 

Jacob: That sounds bad—how much should I be worried?

Shannon: We don’t really know if plastic itself is necessarily harmful. But it does act like a magnet for other toxins in the environment. Things like coloring and additives for texture may also be dangerous, and they also make plastics more difficult to recycle. 

One example is the stuff that makes your water bottle crinkle, which marketers have figured out is a desirable thing for consumers. If we could align on just removing those, plastic would be easier to recycle and more valuable to recyclers. Presumably, less of it would end up in the ocean.  

Jacob: How has the problem of ocean plastics worsened because of the pandemic? 

Shannon: The scary thing is that we don’t really know yet. But medical waste was already a huge problem before the pandemic. Hospitals and other health facilities generate several billion pounds of garbage each year, fueled by a shift toward the use of disposable items to keep sterilization simple.

Anecdotally, we’ve seen photos of disposable masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer bottles left behind in parking lots and streets. A lot of that kind of waste winds up in the sea as it travels down drain pipes and into waterways. The Guardian recently reported that PPE is already washing up in the Mediterranean, where a bystander described there being “more masks than jellyfish.”

But we can fix this. Healthcare companies can reduce the use of disposables and use more recyclable materials, which can decrease costs. We can make more reusable items safe for medical settings. The general public could use reusable masks and be more mindful of where and how they dispose of their PPE waste. 

Jacob: That brings me to my next question—what do we do about ocean plastics overall? 

The Pew study I mentioned earlier has a number of pathways by which we could reduce the amount of plastic going into our ocean by 80 percent in the next 20 years. Things like reducing how much plastic we produce; designing recycling-friendly products; and improving waste collection, among others. 

At, we focus most on waste collection and recycling through our Rethinking Recycling program.

In Bali, for example, we partnered with community leaders to build a profitable waste management and recycling center in just 4 months. So we’re doing good for the environment, but we’re also doing good for people—helping create dignified, safe jobs for essential waste workers, with access to healthcare, job training, and fair wages. 

Jacob: Why focus on a community-based recycling program, as opposed to ocean cleanup? 

Shannon: First and foremost, we have to reduce, reuse, and recycle if we want to stop the flow of our trash into waterways. Ocean cleanups are simply a band-aid on a systemic problem. That’s why our program is focused on addressing the problem at the source, helping communities to properly manage their waste and get it back into the economy—so that it never ends up on a beach.

Essential waste workers from Buenos Aires’ Barrio 31 who champion recycling in their community as a way to keep their communities clean and safe. Their neighbors participate in the program knowing that recycling delivers the women increased incomes from sales of plastics.

Recycling works most effectively at the community level, where you can educate people, build community pride, and foster a sense of common purpose. People feel responsible for their neighborhood, not necessarily the larger city. So it’s important to start there.

Jacob: How have you been able to do those things in Bali? 

Shannon: We work closely with the community to educate and build the right incentives for people to recycle, including making sure they know it will be effective. For the essential workers, we put a lot of energy into capability-building—our  friends at Aberkyn even volunteered their time to come in and do the kind of leadership training usually reserved for senior clients

Jacob: How can folks get involved?

Shannon: The most immediate thing people can do is take a look at their own community and see how they can increase recycling where they are. Learn the rules of what can and can’t be recycled locally and follow them. Putting the wrong stuff in your recycling bin adds cost and can gum up the machines. What we call “hopeful recycling”—putting everything you think might be recyclable into the bin—is not helpful.

From climate change to COVID-19 and racial equity, we live at a time of real consequence and change. But we all have the ability to make a difference, for our planet and for each other. Each little action you take may feel small. But if everyone is doing it, it adds up. 

Audio: Harnessing the ingenuity and resilience of global youth can help save the Ocean

Solving for a clean ocean starts on land

The world has a profound waste problem. As global citizens, we generate at least 3.5 million tons of plastic and other waste in just one day. What’s more, we know that at least 11 million tons of plastic waste leaks into our ocean each year. If we want to stem the tide of waste into the ocean, we need to start on land. 

At, we are solving for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 14, Life Below Water, by tackling the waste ecosystem and mobilizing every player in the process – from waste pickers to global multinational companies, from village leaders to state governors – to work together to rethink recycling.  And while that’s become more complex during COVID-19, with lockdown orders and economic slowdown buckling supply chains, we see hope in the innovation and ingenuity that today’s youth are using to tackle the challenge of protecting our ocean.

Highlighting young people innovating for change

To highlight the crucial role youth play in protecting our ocean, last week we hosted, Reimagining Ocean Action, in partnership with the United Nations and GreenBiz to showcase youth global innovation. During the event, we welcomed four inspiring young innovators that are developing new solutions to protect our ocean and our planet: Dhia Fani, whose work on Rethinking Recycling focuses on re-engineering local waste systems and training waste workers, Lalita Junggee, whose work focuses on the connection of clean oceans to gender equality; Sarah Travers, who uses GPS and data to track and encourage sustainable fishing; and Chiagozie Udeh, who studies climate’s connection to the Ocean through investments in biodiversity. The innovators were also joined by leading conservation experts, UN Special Envoy for the Ocean Ambassador Peter Thomson and our Global Executive Director of Sustainable Communities, Shannon Bouton. Together, the group shared their hopes for a future clean ocean and how individuals and organizations could continue their commitments during COVID19. 

Throughout the conversation, one thing became abundantly clear: human ingenuity has a way of overcoming obstacles to create new solutions for issues and COVID19 is no different.

“While the way all of us collectively deliver impact has taken a new form over the past few months, I have been inspired by what has emerged— our ingenuity, our resilience and our continued commitment to saving our ocean,” said Shannon Bouton 

All four of the young innovators illustrated Bouton’s point as they shared their continued commitment to find new solutions. We invite you to listen to a recording of the event above and learn about their work through their presentations below. 

Meet the innovators 

Sarah Travers is solving fishing’s sustainability problem.

Sarah Travers is the Conservation and Outreach Manager at ConnectOcean and a United Nations’ Reboot Ocean Winner. According to Ambassador Thomson, sustainable fishing is “the future of food” and Sarah is working to make that possible through an innovative approach using GPS and data to track and encourage sustainable fishing. You can learn more about Sarah’s groundbreaking work here.

Dhia Fani is designing new ways to divert waste from landfills. 

Growing up in Indonesia has shaped Dhia’s view of the global plastic problem, as she noted she sometimes mistakes plastic for jellyfish when swimming in the ocean. Her passion has led her to work with as a Senior Associate on our Rethinking Recycling program. Dhia recently spoke about her work on the Sustainable Asia podcast with others from the team. You can listen here

Lalita Junggee is reimaging consumer goods so they are more sustainable.

Lalita is the Founder of Eco Hustle and is one of the Obama Foundation’s Young African Leaders. Lalita’s first sustainable innovation was the creation of Sakili – a line of upcycled bags that uses sustainable printing practices. Her newest project, Recycle Moi, is creating the first natural and biodegradable sanitary pads in Mauritius. She encourages entrepreneurs to explore new ideas, because you never know what will be successful until you try. Learn more about her work through the Obama Young Leaders’ program here

Chiagozie Udeh is making it easier for all of us to support biodiversity. 

Chiagozie was the 2019 Global South Focal Point of YOUNGO, the Youth Constituency to the UNFCCC. He is now focusing his time on a new app, Plant for the Planet. As Chairperson, he is working to expand the reach of the app and inspire others to get involved. As he says, “anybody can plant a tree.” During the event, Ambassador Thomson noted that mangrove trees can store twice as much carbon on a per-area basis as salt marshes. Chia shared that the app will soon allow for individuals to support planting mangroves. Stay tuned and plant a tree here

Ambassador Peter Thomson, also inspired by the youth innovators, called on all the young people on the call to get involved and take a stake in protecting our ocean. 

“Political will builds up from individuals, to families, to communities, to cities, up to the national and global level. But everybody needs to get involved, especially young people, you have more skin in the game than anybody else.”  –  Ambassador Peter Thomson

A special thank you to our innovators, Heather Clancy from GreenBiz for moderating the panel, and Ambassador Peter Thomson. 

To learn more about our upcoming events, sign-up for our e-newsletter here.

Podcast: Sustainable Asia’s Plastic Purge in Bali was honored to be featured on the Sustainable Asia podcast.

Bali’s natural beauty attracts many tourists from around the world, but with that comes plastic waste…a lot of it! Sustainable Asia speaks with to understand how they developed a plastic bottle recycling pilot program in Bali… that may change the course of waste collection and recycling across all of Indonesia.

Shannon Bouton 
Ella Flaye
Abieta Billy
Dhia Fani

Production credits:
Producer and Host: Marcy Trent Long 
Associate producer: YuFei Wu
Sound Engineer: Chris Wood
Intro/outro music: Alex Mauboussin

Follow Sustainable Asia on Twitter @SustainableAsia and Facebook. Sign up for email updates on their website

Blog: From Doctors Without Borders to This engineer designs life-saving health operations in Buenos Aires

Supporting people when they need it most 

As the COVID-19 pandemic escalated around the world, Assunção saw an opportunity to draw on her previous experience with Doctors without Borders to help the residents of one of Buenos Aires’ oldest and largest informal settlements, Barrio 31. As in informal settlements around the world, Coronavirus precautions like social distancing and stay-at-home quarantining are nearly impossible here: families live close together in tiny, cramped apartments, and as one resident starkly put it, “If I don’t work, we don’t eat.” It’s unfortunately no surprise, then, that Barrio 31 and the city’s other slums make up 10% of the Buenos Aires population but 50% of infected cases across the city. 

A Prevention Post volunteer performs a health assessment in Barrio 31.

Co-creating life-saving solutions 

Assunção first arrived in Buenos Aires from her home in Portugal as an operations specialist to support the Rethinking Recycling program’s expansion in Argentina. A biomedical engineer by training, she had previously served as a biomedical and cold chain expert with Doctors Without Borders, first in Iraq, then in the Central African Republic, and finally in Guinea Bissau.

When the pandemic hit, Assunção knew rapid testing would be critical to protect communities like Barrio 31 from runaway outbreaks. She helped bring the International Red Cross, and the City of Buenos Aires government together where they created mobile “Prevention Posts.” These Prevention Posts screen residents for symptoms, connect them with care as needed, and provide information on how to prevent further spread of the virus. Then, Assunção linked with the Doctors Without Borders volunteer training program, helping to build a community base where volunteers would screen Barrio 31 residents for possible symptoms at these Prevention Posts. 

Assunção with her Bio-medical team in Central African Republic.

While serving with Doctors Without Borders in the Central African Republic, Assunção worked with local volunteers that had no previous experience in healthcare to perform basic health assessments – taking temperatures, checking for vitals – for people who needed urgent care. As she described, “Because of my work with Doctors Without Borders, when COVID-19 hit Barrio 31, I knew it was possible to rapidly train people in health assessment skills to help keep the community safe.”

The mobile testing initiative launched with one Prevention Post in Barrio 31, serving nearly 300 people a day, detecting cases that needed to be seen in hospital. Thanks to the pilot’s success, the City Government of Buenos Aires, in partnership with Doctors Without Borders, quickly expanded this cost-effective and easy-to-implement solution and is now deploying Prevention Posts in informal settlements across the city, where nearly 10,000 people are screened for symptoms every day. 

“My work with Doctors Without Borders taught me that with the right training and support, anything is possible,” reflects Assunção, “I really admire the tireless energy that people in Buenos Aires bring to their daily life; so many of them spend their free time volunteering or serving their communities. It was inspiring to see this energy and purpose support the communities we work in to save people’s lives during the pandemic.”

Request for proposals: Rethinking Recycling operational management tool is requesting proposals from interested parties to build or adapt a software platform for the operational management of recycling sorting centers. is an independent non-profit founded in 2018 by McKinsey & Company to address the world’s most complex social and environmental challenges by partnering across sectors to create lasting and substantial impact. Rethinking Recycling – our flagship program – aims to empower every community to build green, inclusive and economic recycling ecosystems.

Our first initiative is to build a modular operational and financial management tool for sorting center operational managers, admin, collectors, sorters and the program team. This Operational Platform will help operational managers run efficient, profitable sorting centers and form a core part of’s scaling model. It will also allow us to start to gather a more holistic data set which shows how different elements of the value chain work together and start to build a data-backed set of initiatives for the following stages of development.

Applications are due by 13th July 2020. Please reach out to for questions and clarifications.

Blog: Advice to the graduating class of 2020 and the Rethinking Recycling program team share some advice for university graduates this year – from navigating a job market during COVID-19 to building a career with purpose.

As students miss out on the usual pomp and circumstance of commencement, our global Rethinking Recycling team shares advice from their personal and professional experiences for the graduating class of 2020.

Shannon, Detroit, USA

“Look for opportunities that will open more doors for you than they will close. If you can’t get yourself to the place you want to be today, there will be steppingstones that will get you there. Try to look for the learning experience in those smaller steps. Sometimes life takes you on quite a winding path, but if you follow your passion, you will get to the right place in the end.”

Paro, Kerala, India

“As someone who graduated during the last financial crisis, I am aware that not everything may go according to your plan this year. Embrace the change of plans and use it an opportunity to reflect on your goals and passions. Take the time and think through what areas you would like to contribute to in a world that will be fundamentally altered post Covid-19. This crisis has shown us how unbelievably fragile our current economic, political and social institutions are, so there’s plenty of meaningful work to be done in the near-term.”  

Billy, Jakarta, Indonesia

“Do not be intimidated by peers who seem to be more capable than yourself. You are running your own race – take every opportunity to learn and strive to get better. Before you know it you will have achieved so much yourself.”

Barry, Sydney, Australia

“Become good at the things you enjoy, but also learn to enjoy the things you’re good at. There is fulfilment to be found in both.”

Ella, London, United Kingdom

“Make your inner child proud!”

Claire, New York City, USA

“Cast a wide net and look at opportunities and paths that you may have never considered when they present themselves. You never know what you will learn or who you will meet that will support your long-term goals.”

Monica, Santander, Spain

“Now it’s time for you to go and seek some ambitious mission that leaves the world a better place than when you came”

Larissa, São Paulo, Brazil

“Develop inner happiness – this will increase significantly your chances of getting there! The only constant in life is change, so learning to react to the changes with equanimity is the pathway to take. Along that journey, you will also learn how to treat yourself and others with kindness and compassion.”

Podcast: Amcor big ideas, “The world is primed to understand the value of recycling.”

Recycling is often seen as a singular entity, but it is actually a whole chain of elements from collection to end-usage of recycled material. Amcor’s David Clark speaks to Dr. Shannon Bouton, Global Executive Director, Sustainable Communities at, about rethinking recycling and what that involves at the community level in emerging economies like Argentina and Indonesia.

L’Echo highlights’s Louise Hannecart

It’s not only eternal growth that counts

SIMON MOUSE | January 2020 | Original article in L’Echo

In July, she was still in Peru where she worked in a prison. There, she just returned from three months in Buenos Aires where she worked to improve the quality of life in informal housing estates. No time to rest. She is already preparing to go back to Bali for six months. An entire program. But embraced 100%. Because Louise Hannecart decided to operate a switch early in her career. After following the classic path of corporate ascent, with a degree in chemical engineering (KU Leuven) and a stint with McKinsey & Company, she decided to set off on the train of the consultant’s new adventure: , named after this independent, non-profit organization, founded in early 2018, to try to solve complex societal challenges.

” I have always been super-passionate and motivated to be involved in society, ” she says. From a moment of volunteering in Ghana and Burundi in her youth to a collaboration with a social knitting workshop in Ayacucho, this breadcrumb is part of her DNA. And feeds his vision of a young worker.

And for good reason, ” to face the challenges to come, the transition to operate must be societal, not just to analyze from a business angle “, evokes the one who therefore decided to make this postulate her job. History to experience firsthand the challenges inherent in this change of mentality. That the markets for the climate have set in motion. ” There has been a great awareness, coming from consumers, from the people, and which is going up to businesses .”

“Donut economy”
So for the next decade, Louise hopes to see more people working towards the advent of an economic model where the realities of planetary limits are taken into account. Like the “donut economy”, theorized by the economist Kate Raworth (University of Oxford). ” It is to say that the economy should not always go towards eternal growth, but reach a certain balance between human and environmental needs “. A vision that should inspire the leaders of tomorrow. Young or not so young. ” We must take advantage of our brainpower to innovate in the way of doing things “. But without staying in the word. ” We must now take action”over the next ten years. This will not be easy, because the path is difficult to discern, but there is no choice.

Blog: Our impact in sustainability and recycling in 2019

This past December we launched our quarterly e-newsletter. We invite you to subscribe for updates like this in the future.

In 2018, McKinsey & Company embarked on a journey to build a new, independent nonprofit,, and started to explore the areas where it could make a real difference on critical global issues, like the waste and recycling challenges facing cities around the world. This past year, took a step forward to make that vision a reality through launching on-the-ground pilot programs under its first initiative Rethinking Recycling.

Together with leading nonprofits, governments, and corporate partners, Rethinking Recycling is working in Bali, Indonesia and Buenos Aires, Argentina to develop and test solutions that will put all waste to productive use for the benefit of communities and the environment. The world generates 3.5 million tons of solid waste every day, a figure that has increased 10 times over the last century and is growing rapidly. Rethinking Recycling aims to prove the economic, environmental and social benefits of recycling, so that they can be scaled across the world, improving the lives of citizens exposed to the effects of air pollution and climate change.

In its first year, Rethinking Recycling’s Argentina program has created the first formal recycling program in Buenos Aires’ Barrio 31, working with roughly 5,000 households and training more than 120 workers from 8 different cooperatives. Through a human-centered approach for behavior change, the program managed to go from 0% to 30% compliance with recycling among community households. Rethinking Recycling also created the first community-run sorting facility for dry recyclables, such as plastic, paper and glass, as well as established the first-ever residential composting service in the City of Buenos Aires.

In Bali, Rethinking Recycling has been working with a community in the capital Denpasar to demonstrate how recycling centers can deliver both economic and environmental impact. The community run program has been economically profitable for over six months, while ensuring all workers receive fair wages and safe working conditions including access to medical care – unfortunately still a rarity for such facilities. The program has also achieved extremely promising levels of source separated waste with as high as 90% of households adhering versus the 11% Bali average, and diverting over 50% of waste from landfill. The center is being heralded for both its economic and environmental success and we are now building an Academy to scale its impact and capability build others in the Indonesian waste space.

As an exciting, impactful year comes to a close, is immeasurably grateful for its partners – ecoBali, Almado, Civic Response Team, Waste Concern, as well as PRAISE and the City of Buenos Aires Secretariat for Social and Urban Integration – who have worked hand-in-hand with its teams, helping to build a zero-waste world where every community is empowered to build sustainable, inclusive, and economically sustainable recycling systems.

2019 Impact


In Indonesia, has partnered with a consortium of six leading CPG players called PRAISE: Danone, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Nestle, Tetra Pak, and Indofood, and the local recycling company, ecoBali – on the end-to-end Rethinking Recycling program, from community education to recycling operations to developing solutions to drive market demand for recyclables.

Rethinking Recycling’s Bali program, known as Desa Kedas or “clean village” in local language, has launched a successful behavioral change and education campaign to drive households to separate waste with figures as high as 90% compliance. The program has focused on training up local youth and community leaders to deliver the campaign to ensure the long-term sustainability of the program.

To demonstrate the scalability of the program we have focused on driving lean and efficient operations which ensure the center is break even and even generating a small monthly profit while ensuring all workers have fair wages and safe working conditions.

Desa Kedas has attracted much attention, being heralded as one of Bali’s best practice waste management centers by both national and local government officials, and featured in multiple new outlets including national news network Metro TV and other news channels in S.E.Asia.

Buenos Aires

In Argentina, has partnered with the City of Buenos Aires on community and recycling operations and convened a working group of corporate players including Dow, AB InBev, Amcor, Danone, and Veolia to explore demand-side solutions.

At the Buenos Aires site, has made considerable progress in its pilot community, a large informal settlement called Barrio 31, where the city government of Buenos Aires has integrated Rethinking Recycling’s methodology into a holistic inclusive development program.

In Barrio 31, has built a waste management and recycling program from scratch, training more than 120 workers from 8 different cooperatives to operate a professional collection service and recycling center with ongoing data tracking, as well as to run education campaigns for residents. Through this program, Barrio 31 is now selling #1 (PET) plastic directly to a plastics processor within the formal market, achieving a 5x increase in income from these plastics.

Through co-creation with the community, has developed low-cost innovations that make a big difference in changing behavior, such as QR code labelled hooks for hanging cleanly separated waste. in the News on Indonesia’s national MetroTV primetime – “Plastics are clogging our oceans but stemming the tide of waste starts here on land.”’s Shannon Bouton and Cynthia Shih in GreenBiz – “The first step toward unlocking investment in new recycling capacity should be to establish less-volatile supply and demand conditions.”

McKinsey News’ feature on Rethinking Recycling – “It’s exciting to be bringing McKinsey & Company’s expertise and capabilities to directly addressing those challenges while working through innovative partnerships to create solutions that can scale up quickly.”

For more updates like this, sign-up here for our e-newsletter