EPISODE 2: It’s All ABout Infrastructure
Moving to a plastic circular economy in Asia requires changes in behaviour and better waste management infrastructure.
Trish Hyde, Managing Director at The Plastics Circle, Founder at PlastX
Doug Woodring, Founder and Managing Director at Ocean Recovery Alliance
Ashwin Subramaniam, CEO & Founder at GA Circular (Gone Adventurin’)
Marcy: Hi! My name is Marcy Trent Long. Welcome to Sustainable Asia.
This is The Plasticity Podcast, made in collaboration with Ocean Recovery Alliance.
In this series, I try to find out what needs to happen in Asia for us to move away from the plastic linear economy of produce, consume, and discard to create a more circular economy of reuse and recycle. In this episode: What is the infrastructure that needs to be put in place so plastic can be collected and sorted, so it can be recycled and used in new products.
Trish: Our biggest challenge with the circular economy is that it isn't circular and it isn't an economy.
Marcy: Trish Hyde founded The Plastics Circle to promote circular business in Asia
Trish: Economy needs supply and demand. At the moment, the current thinking is 'we make, we consume and then we're going to magically recycle it into something else.' And that piece is not being supported enough. We need businesses to have access to good quality supply chain of recovered materials.
Marcy: Getting the plastic material from the bins to the recycler is one of the major challenges of the circular economy here in Asia. Doug Woodring, founder of the Plasticity forum, agreed:
Doug: The real cost of recycling is getting the economies of scale in the volumes of plastic that are of the same type, quality and cleanliness. The cost associated with the collection and cleaning are really what causes recycling to be problematic in terms of cost-advantage versus virgin material.
Marcy: Businesses won’t use recycled plastic as long as it is cheaper for them to use new plastic. So what are some of the ways we can make it easier to retrieve usable material from our bins? According to Doug, a simple change in the way we sort our waste can make a big difference in cost.
Doug: I believe that the sorting in the best possible way, globally, would be to sort wet and dry. When you simply separate materials wet and dry, you don't contaminate all the dry material, which can be plastic bottles that had water in them. What it means is that you don't put food waste and the wet waste into the dry recycling. If the households and the city system was to collect all dry waste, including all plastic, which is a little bit pre-washed by the consumer. The chances of recycling would be many, many times greater than today. The real costs come when you aggregate all the materials together, the organics and the wet material with the plastic. In that way neither of those feedstock streams of resources is valuable. You can't use the organics because there's plastics in it, and you can't use plastic because the organics are on it.
Marcy: Government initiatives and campaigns can help to organise consumer behaviour and create large supplies of valuable plastic source material.
Trish: For the circular economy, I believe government regulation needs to actually stop focusing on environmental penalty approach policy, but rather look at it as a business opportunity. We have billions of dollars of plastic going to waste. If a country can pull together the right industry dynamics to do that recovery and produce the new material the rest of the world will buy it. We want to buy recycled content. Using the scale and using the social fabric is really the way to address a circular economy.
Marcy: I spoke with Singapore-based consultant Ashwin Subramaniam about the next challenge: creating accountability in the waste collection system.
Ashwin: The second challenge we see is the fact that there is a very fragmented waste collection system. There is often certain very big players and then there's very small players. For instance, about 40-45% of waste in most Southeast Asian cities –especially for plastics– is being collected by the informal sector.
When I say informal sector, these are people who are often partially employed by the government to collect waste, but they also have a side business where they collect recyclables. Then you have the recycling pickers, who are entrepreneurs. They go out there and collect the most valuable things that they can find. Then you have junk shop, who sometimes operate with a license or without a license. And then you have the scavengers who work in landfills. All of these people put together play a very, very important role in making sure the plastics are coming back and getting into the recycling value chain.
Marcy: This informal sector poses problems for larger consumer brands, who are required to have a very transparent supply chain.
Ashwin: With this sort of very loose, uncoordinated supply chain, and very little transparency often on where the plastic comes from in the previous level, that creates an issue where companies which make pledges often will then struggle with guaranteeing and making sure that the waste is coming from sources which have used environmentally safe practices, socially responsible practices.
Marcy: The skilled workers who make up the informal sector in Asia have a crucial role to play in collecting enough post-consumer plastic for the circular economy to function, but a lot of their work can’t be used for recycling, because of a lack of traceability and government oversight.
Ashwin: There is often a complete lack of data in certain aspects of waste management. For example, we don't know the composition, as of yesterday, in municipal solid waste in many countries. Because the last set of data would have been collected in 2008, 2012. Since then plastic consumption has increased quite dramatically. So we are making decisions based on 10, 5-year-old data sets. That's not great. There is a need to be understanding what is going on today and to understand that on an annual basis. So any policy change, anything that the industry does together, we can track and see how the progress is being made.
Marcy: So those are the first few steps on the way to a circular economy: First make sure that recyclers have access to plastic that is not contaminated with wet organic waste. Then, through better data gathering, we can improve the collection systems to ensure plastic packaging companies better understand the source of the material they’ll use. With that basic framework in place, we can turn to the recycling facilities themselves. What can be done to lower the cost of recycling plastic in Asia, so we can further increase the scale of production? That’s on next in The Plasticity Podcast.
Marcy: Special thanks to our sponsors The Swire Group Charitable Trust – creating positive change in education, marine and arts though supporting registered non-profit organisations, primarily in Hong Kong and mainland China.
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The Plasticity Podcast is produced by Sustainable Asia, in collaboration with Ocean Recovery Alliance. The series was created by me, Marcy Trent Long; written, edited and mixed by Sam Bekemans. The music in this episode is made from repurposed and recovered waste items by Alexander Mauboussin; Learn more at kalelover.net
Marcy Trent Long