The ‘Why’ Is More Important Than the ‘What’
Let me get straight to the point. The sustainability of the planet will be decided in Asia! A region with more than 50+% of the world’s population living in less than 10% of all the countries. Unfortunately the circular economy and sustainability is still perceived as a ‘risk’ so business-as-usual prevails.
We all need to be truly invested in our future. Individual futures, family futures, collective futures, planetary futures – take your pick but, remember, they are all interconnected. That investment makes you a shareholder and stakeholder and gives you a some rights. The level of participation is up to you, your available time and continued interest. It is a busy world out there.
The one thing we all know is that we cannot sit back and do nothing. If ever there was a time for action it is now. This is a story about our action. It is also a story of perseverance, tenacity, strategy, successes and failures. It is not a story of hope, dreams or aspirations. Our actions speak louder than words because Circular Economy Asia (CEA) made huge investments over several years into the ‘why’. Why we do what we do. And we want you to join our action plan. Here is why…
In November 2018, The Economist hosted a 1-day event, The Sustainability Summit, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and asked the question “Is the Circular Economy Achievable in Asia?” The basis of this question was due to the type and style of businesses that makes up all economic activity in the region. Superficially the answer is no. It will take too long and be too hit and miss to make the impact we need in the time we have left to attempt to mitigate devastating climate change and total mismanagement of our natural resources.
But underneath it all most Asian businesses have looked into their crystal ball and seen the future, and there is an interest to become sustainable and circular. It comes to down to risk. Business-as-usual still appears safe while sustainability and circularity an expense with unknown returns. So how do we bridge the gap?
CEA is an organisation focused on providing and implementing circular solutions across the Asian region. Unfortunately we made a mistake. We believed that Asian businesses actually understood the circular economy and would be willing to pay for our training and workshops. We set up a standard business model and failed.
Failing is not a big deal. Failing changed the dial on the compass to come up with a new model accepted by the market (governments, civic society, SME’s, large corporations and every day people) that sees us fulfill our mission and vision. What we recognised from our failure is that we need to invest into some very strategic programs that reduces the risk for Asian businesses to shift into circular systems.
Two of our programs compete in a red ocean of activity (are you familiar with the blue ocean strategy?) while other initiatives are blue ocean schemes. So what decision compelled me to inhabit an already busy space when there is an abundant blue ocean out there waiting for circular initiatives?
To be more specific, the Asian Plastics & Packaging Agreement (APPA) is a ‘what we are going to do’, but why considering how crowded the whole plastic space is. Do we really need another plastics solution?
APPA is about an industry and not about plastics. It would be easy to get confused given the name, but it is a name purely out of convenience.
APPA works at looking at a whole industry, or lack of a cohesive one, and says “the industry needs training, sustainable and circular guidelines and more pull for recycled content instead of getting sidetracked and bogged down with the problem of plastics.
Formal training starting with Operation Clean Sweep, from the American Chemistry Council, to address the leakages from plastics manufacturing. Unfortunately it is a voluntary commitment accompanied by a manual. CEA has approached the American Chemistry Council to discuss establishing a formal training program here in Asia as part of APPA and has yet to receive a response. This would be the beginning of shoring up weaknesses in the management and supply chain of the plastics industry especially in developing nations.
Another key feature of APPA is aligning consumers to shifting the industry from virgin to sustainable and recyclable plastics. The growth in the plastics industry is due to projections of growing consumer demand from both an expanding middle class in developing countries and three billion new consumers currently being conceived to join us on this tiny blue planet of ours. This doesn’t include the growing demand by a range of industry sectors, from automotive to aeronautical, all wanting innovative plastic polymers to fit new applications.
The major barrier that must be overcome is one faced by all new materials – lack of knowledge about mechanical properties and processing characteristics, and lack of large-scale demonstrators that prove the economic, technical and environmental justification for using these materials. Although there are a number of projects that are addressing these issues, the push from the manufacturing side of the supply chain to find a solution to, for example, a carbon fiber waste problem is generally not matched by a pull from the supply chain’s design side to find ways of using recycled carbon fiber products. A sustainable and circular plastics and packaging industry may not be able to solve all the demand/supply side problems but there should be a level of transparency where ‘lack of knowledge’ does not exist.
Companies follow consumers and in a perfect world consumers should stop focusing on plastics and start concentrating on the plastic industry as a whole. As that is an unlikely scenario the next best option is to work with as many stakeholders (and there is a considerable number) and bring them onboard. The general public have come a long way in the last few years but banning straws, plastic bags and single use packaging may not end up being the wholistic solution we need.
Consumers should be able to purchase cars, fly in plans and buy any product made from any of the 40,000 plastic polymers available today that clearly states the amount of recycled or virgin material content. Consumer action and choice will strengthen collection and shift recycling into an economically viable reprocessing industry.
Moving along with the same theme is our Recyclable Resource Recovery Collection System (RRRCS). Did you know that up to 90% of all recyclable materials are collected by the informal sector in some developing countries yet are ignored or marginalised?
RRRCS intends to establish a legitimate framework that brings informal collectors in from the cold, to mainstream their activities. It also acknowledges 244 countries (out of 249) have sufficient government debt where waste management is a grossly under resourced function.
There is a need for a parallel system of informal workers who exist in a framework where training, financing, positive branding and tech resources are established, so we can actually begin to tackle the exploding volume of waste across the Asian region.
Of course both these projects are highly ambitious but then they need to be. Anything less is not a solution and why CEA has invested a significant and substantial amount of time into their development.
We are also repositioning from the crowded red ocean and into the blue. Why do we need to seek blue ocean opportunities, surely the above two projects is enough?
The blue ocean provides us with the ability to build case studies promoting the value of the circular economy in ways APPA and RRRCS does not provide.
This expansion opens up a wealth of information to build the tools to engage enough industry sectors across the Asian region to transition to circularity.
The balance of power has shifted and this shift will continue to build momentum over the coming decades. The 21st century is called the Asian century for a reason as the numbers below indicate. Remember the sustainability of the planet will be decided in Asia.
However it all comes down to risk. And why our new strategy is geared to reduce that risk. Our workshops and tools are of a very high calibre and although it will take a little time before they become a source of revenue (so we can become financially sustainable), the fact is these tools are at my disposal to use and show companies the path to circularity that includes alternative revenue streams and a connection to the new consumer.
So will our new strategy work? A few weeks ago I tested the water and, so far, by all accounts it is a much needed and welcome rethink.
You can open my GoFundMe page, but this is not the time to wait.
*Please note, the Asian Plastics & Packaging Agreement is currently being re-written to include more deliverables.