This article is a hypothetical view of a Circular Asia in 2050 based on the assumption that policy makers enthusiastically embrace the Circular Economy in 2018. It is the final article in a series of three based on the topics from The Economist Sustainability Summit, 15 November 2018 in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia.

All of us who work in the Circular Economy have a vision for a circular world. A world where we co-exist within the limits of our planet. A world where our desires are still met yet where we respect the processes that go into giving us what we want.

This is a long road. A road that will continue way past 2050 as it must because we are talking about an economic shift that will take generations to change. The circular road is the only road, there are no other roads, options or alternatives, if we, along with all the remaining species left, are to survive on this tiny blue planet of ours.

So let’s start by defining Asia. Our organisation, Circular Economy Asia Inc, records 24 countries which make up Asia. The Asian Development Bank, in their 2011 report “Asia 2050 – Realising the Asian Century” lists 49 countries.[1] Except for references to the ADB report, Asia will be limited to 24 countries.[2]

Just to give you some perspective as to the importance Asia has in the world. In 2010 seven economies (China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand) had a combined total population of 3.1 billion (78 percent of Asia) and a GDP of $14.2 trillion (87 percent of Asia). By 2050 their share in population is expected to fall to 73 percent of Asia, while the share of GDP rises to 90 percent. These seven economies alone will account for 45 percent of global GDP. [3]

“The anticipated affluence of some 3 billion additional Asians will put tremendous pressures on – and create intense competition for – Earth’s finite natural resources. Long before 2050, Asia will surpass North America and Europe as the largest energy consuming block…To preserve its economic interests, it will need to take the lead in radical energy efficiency and diversification programs…The key policy implication for all Asian countries is that their future competitiveness and well-being will depend heavily on improving the efficiency of natural resource use and winning the global race to a low carbon future.”[4]

Now that we have set the tone for the urgency around the adoption for Circular Economy values and principles, what will a Circular Asia 2050 look like given that policy makers have placed it high on today’s agenda?

Renewable energy: Given Asia’s demand for energy to fuel its growth, energy will still come from a mix of sources with fossil fuels slowly being phased out. By 2050 more than 50% of all transport and grid energy will come from hydrogen fuel cells, agriculture and food waste, solar and wind, thermal and hydropower. Interestingly enough, in 2018, the top threat perceived by Asia-Pacific CEO’s in Asia’s renewable energy drive is availability of key skills.[5] This will have been overcome by 2050 through the collaborative efforts of public private partnerships.

Waste-as-a-Resource: Only 23 Asian countries adopted the new metric that calculates how much a country recovers its resources from the waste stream for reprocessing. The target set in the Asian Plastics & Packaging Agreement for 70% of all recyclable resources to be recovered for reprocessing by 2040 was reached. The notable exception is Singapore due to their ongoing commitment to incineration.

Labelling that improves recycling and indicates the amount of recycled content has also been in use since the 2030 targets set across the region was reached. During the 2020’s several different product sales delivery systems were trialled across a variety of products and are successfully in use. In addition a range of reusable containers were manufactured that provides accurate measurement for a limited range of products from the product delivery systems together with apps, sensors and other technologies. Just these innovations alone significantly reduced the amount of packaging required without reducing any product sales.

One of the best advances within the Circular Economy has been the strengthening of collection systems, the employment of informal collectors who still work in many countries across the Asian region. The economics of collection together with Asia’s physical urban design has contributed to these jobs not being taken over by technology. Unfortunately it is taking a very long time for architects to design buildings for better waste-as-a-resource management. Change takes time.

Plastics & Packaging: In 2018 it was noted there are around 40,000 different types of plastics in use. An incredible number and, certainly, not a sustainable number. By 2050 the plastics industry, in conjunction with all the other industries that use plastics, worked together to considerably cut back this number and all plastics are now 100% recyclable. Many unnecessary single use plastics have been eliminated or adequate substitutes are in place.

Circular Design: The circular design of products has been a long and slow process with limited success. There is less urgency for the manufacturing industry to redesign their products for repair and refurbishment. The supply chain and distribution for spare parts has been ad hoc, particularly for smaller Asian manufacturers thus making it harder for circular designs to deliver on their promises.

While most western procurement departments have reasonable stringent circular purchasing policies in place particularly in the EU, the USA has taken many years to catch up after the Trump administration. Within Asia many companies are still to take the circular economy seriously despite all the evidence.

Circular Business Models: Like circular design the renting, leasing or sharing of products has been sluggish as it is not an easy transition for Asian consumers to make. Reverse logistics, to ensure the retrieval of their assets (products), has been challenging for many SME’s and although technology has greatly advanced the ease of keeping track of products there are limits, especially for clothes and shoes, as it still requires consumers to dispose responsibly.

Circular business models also includes the refurbishing, remanufacturing, repairing and reprocessing industries. Within this category there is greater acceptance as it has translated to increased profits for manufacturers although the repair industry did not evolve as forecast. The increasing use and flexibility of module design for many products empowered consumers to undertake their own fixes keeping repairs out of most 3rd party operators.

The rising middle class in Asia, as in other emerging markets, prefers new consumer products. In fact it has become a sign of extra affluence to own a new product rather than a refurbished on. None-the-less there is a vibrant refurbished market for many white goods and industrial machinery. TV’s and other electronic goods have remained on the ever evolving treadmill of fast paced technology changes and thus continue to be discarded.

The goods news is that up to 95% of all electronics is now collected throughout Asia with massive improvements in the extraction of critical raw materials. Most backyard operators have been trained, together with micro-financing for better equipment, to safely extract all these valuable minerals. This change alone has increased the incomes for hundreds of families and reduced environmental damage across the region.

In conclusion, shifting a whole economic system takes generations to achieve. The steady uptake of the Circular Economy has been attained mainly due to the urgency around climate change. Consumers have relied on industry taking charge however they have been less consistent in their purchasing habits. Yet we are still many years away before we can declare the world as being truly circular. There have been hot spots of achievement particularly in waste, waste-as-a-resource and plastics. Other circular values have been harder to accomplish the wholesale success everyone would have liked. Now we, the people who first began between 2010 ~ 2018, have started to pass the baton to a new group of leaders who bring their own dreams to a sustainable and circular world.

[1] Afghanistan; Armenia; Azerbaijan; Bangladesh; Bhutan; Brunei Darussalam; Cambodia; People’s Republic of China (PRC); Cook Islands; Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; Fiji; Georgia; Hong Kong, China; India; Indonesia; Iran; Japan; Kazakhstan; Kiribati; Republic of Korea; Kyrgyz Republic; Lao PDR; Macau, China; Malaysia; Maldives; Marshall Islands; Federated States of Micronesia; Mongolia; Myanmar; Nauru; Nepal; Pakistan; Palau; Papua New Guinea; Philippines; Samoa; Singapore; Solomon Islands; Sri Lanka; Taipei,China; Thailand; Tajikistan; Timor-Leste; Tonga; Turkmenistan; Tuvalu; Uzbekistan; Vanuatu; and Vietnam.

[2] Bangladesh; Bhutan; Brunei Darussalam; Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Lao, Macau, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam.

[3] ‘Asia 2050: Realizing the Asian Century’, Asian Development Bank, 2011

[4] Ibid

[5] ‘The Next Frontier for Infrastructure Investments: Renewable Energy in Asia Pacific’, PwC 2018

This article is the third in a series of three, first published on LinkedIn on 31 October 2018 for The Economist Sustainability Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 2018.