You’ve read the news – right? The story about the $180 billion investment into the world’s largest plastic’s factories (The Guardian, 26 December 2017). Whilst the article states “…the impact will ripple outwards in the form of vast new supplies of raw materials for plastics being transported to Europe and China”, from China it will be a tsunami across the rest of Asia.
Consider these population and shopping statistics:
According to the UN’s Population Division, the population of the 10-country ASEAN bloc will grow from 633 million people (2015) to 717 million by 2030. By 2020, 400 million will be considered middle class.
By 2025 total retail sales in just six markets will be US$1.4 trillion of which 6.4% will come from online / e-commerce sales.
There is no collection system in the world, particularly here in Asia, that will be able to manage the onslaught from a 40% increase in the volume of plastics over the next 10 years.
There is no ‘education & awareness campaign’ that will encourage us to change our behaviours quick enough. After all for more than 40 years we have known of the impact our specie has on the planet and we still have an ocean full of plastic.
There is no report, no roadmap, no policy, that will come into effect soon enough to enable us to tackle the plastic problem faster than these production lines.
There are not enough plastics reprocessing plants that will be able to collect and pump out recycled plastic products to compete with virgin plastic products. And if there were what a glut of plastics we would have!
There are not enough designers working 24/7 who will be able to design waste out of our consumer society soon enough before these new plastics begin their assault and wreak havoc.
Therefore we shall be faced with the prospect of both primary plastic production and secondary plastic production via recycling processing factories. They cannot both exist without an enormous glut of plastic products and, ultimately, it will come down to economics. A price war may be inevitable and it won’t be hard to see who will win.
So Are There Any Solutions?
First, we must offer more sustainable choices by encouraging consumers to decide between products made from recycled plastics or virgin plastic products. This can be achieved by establishing a Circular Economy Standard and the first sector we start with is with the plastics industry.
Setting sustainable standards has been very effective especially with Fair Trade, Forest Stewardship, Marine Stewardship Council, and even corporate own-brand sustainability initiatives such as Starbucks C.A.F.E. Practices. Although from an Asian perspective the easier and simpler we make a Circular Economy Standard, the less expensive it will be for small plastics manufacturers to sign up. This is crucial if we are to move vast segments of the population in developing countries into the Circular Economy.
One of the difficulties with the Circular Economy is how well the human race has become at extracting resources to the very last drop. Fracking has become so advanced in the ability to wrest natural gas and oil from shale that it has revolutionized the energy landscape in the US. It is this fossil fuel abundance that is behind these investments into more plastics. It’s easy to blame corporate greed when the truth is that we just haven’t come to terms with our finite resources. Ironically the clean energy sector is creating more jobs and, at least, giving consumers a choice.
It’s this choice that the Circular Economy needs to expand and grab market share by offering more industry incentives. There will never be one single answer to the plastics problem and as distasteful and abhorrent as it sounds we must create a social divide between those people who choose sustainable plastics and those who do not. After all the use of plastics is the one single item that unites us all.
Second, we need to rethink international aid, philanthropy and corporate sponsorships. Currently 0.3% of international aid goes to waste management, yet improvements in waste management creates jobs, increases incomes, reduces poverty, boost skills, cleans cities, encourages investment into reprocessing facilities and will establish more circular businesses. Here at Circular Economy Asia Inc., our signature program is an improved Recyclable Resource Recovery Collection System which is a hybrid of tech innovation and human capital. The population demographics, urban and rural landscapes, political economics plus the development trajectory many Asian countries are on will require this hybrid.
Our Recyclable Resource Recovery Collection System aims to work within the hierarchy of informal collectors and government SWM contractors. Many informal collectors already have reasonable assets to perform their task well yet lack a cohesive plan to improve efficiencies and provide a convenient service. Those lacking in the required assets will have access to a range of resources, including micro-financing, in order to fulfill their duties. We are working hard to see Stage 2 of our 3-Stage pilot project come to fruition in 2018 except finding funds within this 0.3% is very difficult.
The number of people who are termed ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ (BoP) is estimated to be between 3 ~ 4 billion people. Not only do they represent a sizeable percentage of the global population, they are being touted as the new target consumer group and improving their life may offer the potential to more circular consumption.
In the research paper ‘Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea’ it states that eight out of the 10 river systems which have the highest plastic loads dumping into the oceans are in Asia. Yet for some unfathomable reason we are locked into a mindset that believes that ‘education & awareness’ campaigns are the best tools we have especially when it comes to shifting human behaviours at the BoP where waste management is the most problematic or we simply neglect this demographic as being “too hard”.
In the Philippines the net cost of consumer-recycling campaigns, for instance, was calculated at $190,000 per metric ton of plastic-waste leakage reduced and would reduce leakage by only 2,000 metric tons across a plastic-waste pool of 60 million metric tons. If we want positive behaviour change we need to rethink collection systems where people can adapt to change rather than hoping persuasion of environmental degradation will work. It seems easier to target cash-strapped governments or demand businesses to do more.
Third, we need to stop seeing China’s Sword policy as a problem. For many years western countries have refused to take responsibility for their own waste, preferring to ship it to China and other Asian countries for processing. Many Asian countries are under resourced to enforce proper health and safety measures for small factories to process domestic waste let along imported waste. Although many recycling companies, particularly in the USA, are struggling with what to do with their recyclable resources, it does present a huge opportunity to review whole waste management systems, including kerbside collection and sorting. It’s times like this when innovation is born and offers the option to rebuild and strengthen domestic recycling industry’s.
Our message simply states that by exporting recyclable resources we are exporting jobs and investment to other countries. When we improve Recyclable Resource Recovery Collections Systems, we create domestic jobs and divert investment from virgin resource extraction to recyclable resource processing facilities. This is how we see building the Circular Economy in developing countries.
Whilst the reality of resource scarcity is important to business it’s still not strong enough to sway most businesses into more circular practices. However an improved Recyclable Resource Recovery Collection System has (given the right branding and marketing campaign) instant high visibility, immediately creates jobs and offers a window to complete the narrative of where recycling materials end up. It can build a nation’s resilience to resource scarcity, maintain and improve the standard of living and export competitiveness – all highly important vital ingredients here in Asia.
From this point, we believe it’s a shorter step to embracing circular business models and circular design. A Circular Economy Standard will be crucial as we hunker down to take on the first real offensive against the war on primary plastic manufacturing and plastic waste.
Written by Ms Adrienna Zsakay, Executive-Director: Circular Economy Asia Inc., based in Malaysia.
 Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam
 Nielsen “ASEAN 2015: Seeing around the corner in a new Asian landscape”
 Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore
 ‘e-conomy SEA: Unlocking the $200 billion digital opportunity in Southeast Asia’ Google | Temasek, 2017
 Christian Schmidt, Tobias Krauth, Stephan Wagner “Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea’ Environmental Science 2017: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/10/171017110028.htm
 ‘Stemming the Tide: Land-based Strategies for a plastic-free ocean’ McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, page 27
Further reading: ‘Villagers pay tragic price as Indian building boom drives demand for sand‘, The Guardian, 30 December 2017