Episode 3: Define Recyling?
What can be done to lower the cost of recycling plastics in Asia, so we can further increase the scale of production to make recycling easier and more profitable?
Ashwin Subramaniam, CEO & Founder at GA Circular (Gone Adventurin’)
Kian Hoe Seah, Managing Director at Heng Hiap Industries Sdn Bhd
Harsha Reddy, Head of Global Sustainability at Indorama Ventures PCL
Ravish Majithia, Founder and CEO of Magnomer
Renae Kezar, Senior Director, Global Leader of Sustainability at Avery Dennison
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 the previous two episodes of The Plasticity Podcast, we looked at how global brands are becoming drivers behind the packaging circular economy and how developing countries in Asia can improve their infrastructure to encourage the plastic circular economy.
In this episode, we’ll have a look at the recycling facilities. What can be done to lower the cost of recycling plastics in Asia, so we can further increase the scale of production to make recycling easier and more profitable?
Founder at Magnomer
Ravish: When a consumer throws a bottle in the recycle bin, it goes through a series of steps, before it can be made back into plastic materials so that a new bottle can be made.
Marcy: This is Ravish Majithia, founder of Magnomer, a Boston-based design startup.
Ravish: Those steps have a lot of losses in them. We are taking a hard look at what those losses are, and using that as an incentive and using the problem in the recycling process as an excuse to design our packaging better.
Marcy: One of the main challenges in the recycling process is separating different types of plastic that are used in packaging. For instance: different plastics have different melting points, so putting a polyethylene flake into a polypropylene soup can ruin the whole batch.
Ravish: In layman’s terms, our technology what it does is it sorts out problematic materials which are contaminating the recycle stream. Our magnetic coating simply can magnetically attract a label which has our coating on it. Which would leave behind higher quality, lower contaminated plastic flake. Which can now be recycled back to bottles. That is the yield loss that we are trying to prevent.
Global Leader of Sustainability at Avery Dennison
Marcy: Ravish is one of many entrepreneurs who are trying to find a solution to common items that contaminate the waste stream. Renae Kezar is also looking into labels. She is the Global Leader of Sustainability at Avery Dennison.
Renae: How we think about labels is part of the sustainable package. So we want to make sure that the labels are not contaminating the recycling stream. What we do is not only work with the brands but we are talking with some of the recyclers to understand their technologies, to make sure that our label can work within their system.
I think one challenge that we have found is that not all recycling processes are created equal. So we have our clean flake product that works in PET recycling, it cleanly removes from a PET bottle. However, as you take that product around the world, recycling processes change. If you are in the Netherlands or if you are in Singapore, so it has been quite an interesting rollout. But with that we just make sure we have our technology people, kind of at the point of introduction, to make sure we can have the label customised to be able to work in the local system.
Marcy: But sometimes, contamination is harder to prevent. For instance when items are made up of layers of different flexible materials. Ashwin Subramaniam, the founder of the environmental consultancy Gone Adventurin in Singapore, spoke to me about the difficulty of recycling so-called “multi-material flexibles”
Founder at Gone Adventurin’, now GA Circular
Ashwin: I think flexibles, especially when they are monomaterial, they definitely have a lot of value today in terms of getting recycled. Of course it all depends on the thickness, the thicker the material is, the more weight it has, and it becomes easier for it to be recycled. The real challenge then is in the multimaterial flexibles. I think for these materials we really need to think through the post-consumer stage of things. Often when companies have designed some of these materials, they have not quite thought through what then happens to these products after the consumers use them. Will it end up in a landfill? That's probably the best thing that can happen to it, given the fact that there is no other way to recycle it. I think there has to be a lot more thought being put into the design side. So we design flexible plastics for it to be recycled. And while at the same time we also focus on the back-end of things, to build technologies to actually then recycle flexibles.
Marcy: I wanted to find out if there are any technologies for recycling flexibles in a profitable way, so I talked to Kian Hoe Seah. Kian Hoe is a Malaysian entrepreneur who came from a family of recyclers.
Kian Hoe Seah
Founder and Managing Director at Heng Hiap Industries
Kian Hoe: I would go out with my parents during school holidays and collect recyclables from household to household
Marcy: Kian Hoe and his company Heng Hiap Industries now source plastic waste from community recyclers, and he finds ways to make the most out of every material. He uses three types of waste treatment: mechanical recycling, thermal recycling, also known as incineration, and chemical recycling
Kian Hoe: If it's good for mechanical recycling then we'll channel that to mechanical recycling. If it's good for thermal, it goes to thermal. More often than not it goes into chemical recycling, whereby we produce biodiesel from that. So every time you go to a different type of recycling, the equation changes. I think what you're familiar with is that someone who does mechanical recycling will tell you that they don't do flexible, because it's not good or not feasible to do mechanical recycling. That is because it doesn't fit into mechanical recycling. It actually means that this will still be feasible, sustainable and profitable using other types of recycling, i.e. chemical or thermal.
Marcy: We discussed incineration extensively in the last episode of the Eight Million podcast series. But I hadn’t heard of chemical recycling. To find out what chemical recycling is, I spoke to Harsha Reddy, Global Head of Sustainability at Thailand-based recycling company Indorama Ventures.
Head of Global Sustainability at Indorama Ventures
Harsha: Chemical recycling is an advanced technology, where it breaks down those used bottles, flakes into molecules. When it breaks down into molecules, it is as pure as virgin PET.
Marcy: Using chemical recycling, manufacturers can use recycled plastic to create material that is indistinguishable from virgin plastic. That can actually solve one of the current issues with recycled plastic: several countries, like China and India, don’t allow plastic that is mechanically recycled into food packaging. They worry about waste that might be mixed in with the plastic, and contaminate the food. But chemical recycling breaks the plastic down to its molecular state, erasing any concerns about contamination. Chemical recycling also solves the problem of different colored plastic – black, purple or red plastic containers can all be distilled into a clear virgin plastic.
Harsha: When it comes to chemical recycling, it is as pure as virgin PET. It is equal to virgin PET.
Marcy: But Harsha warns me that we still have a long way to go before we can recycle flexible plastics on a large scale using chemical recycling.
Harsha: Chemical recycling is in its inception stages. It is not commercially proven yet. Even though we signed two agreements with two technology providers, it is in the pilot stages.
Marcy: Through a combination of innovative design and applying different recycling techniques, a larger percentage of collected items will be recyclable, increasing the value of plastic waste in general.
Ravish: Once yield losses come to a point where our bottles in those trash cans have value, they are not looked at as something that they need to get rid off, but as a commodity that they can sell for profit, capture rates will go up.
Marcy: As plastic recycling becomes more profitable in Asia, and consumer brands gain access to a growing supply of recycled material here, we start closing the loop on the circular economy. We do however have one more step: In order to grow the market for recycled goods, we need to get rid of some persistent misconceptions. That’s for the next episode of The Plasticity Podcast.
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