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Circular economy practices must be scaled to answer our plastic pollution problem

Arun Rajamani
Arun Rajamani1/27/2022 5:23 PM GMT+08  • 6 min read
Circular economy practices must be scaled to answer our plastic pollution problem
Our intensive reliance on plastic has turned this essential material into a scourge of modern society
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Plastics have been a major driver of human progress over the last century. Since the first fully synthetic plastic was invented over a century ago, this diverse group of materials has evolved to underpin our modern world with numerous applications that make our daily lives more comfortable.

Our intensive reliance on plastic has created an ‘Age of Disposables’ — turning this essential material into a scourge of modern society. Over nine billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since 1950, with more than half ending up in landfills or polluting ecosystems around the world. Less than 7% of plastics produced over the last seven decades have been recycled. Of that number, more than two-thirds ultimately ends up incinerated or as waste.

The problem of plastic pollution is particularly acute in Southeast Asia, with our extensive coastlines and rich yet vulnerable biodiversity. Nations of Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia) account for five of the top 10 global producers of ocean plastic debris. While its own contribution is significantly less, Singapore is caught in the currents of this regional challenge.

Some estimates indicate that the ratio of fish to plastic in our oceans by weight is now 1:5. This figure is projected to become significantly worse in the coming decades. If the current trajectory continues, in the next 15 to 20 years it will be difficult to consume fish anywhere on Earth that is not contaminated with plastic. This stark reality highlights the fundamental need for a more sustainable, circular plastic economy.

Global action on the plastic economy

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Plastic is so pervasive across the global environment that micro particles can now be identified in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food that we consume. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) recently released a scathing report on the state of global plastic pollution, adding momentum to calls for a global agreement on plastics due to be discussed at the UN Environment Assembly in February this year.

Companies and governments around the world are already taking action to tackle the plastics problem, aggressively working to reduce or recycle their plastic footprint. Many private companies have introduced sustainable plastic targets, including multinationals and domestic players here in Southeast Asia.

Proctor and Gamble has committed to only use 100% recyclable or reusable plastic by 2030, with a 50% reduction in virgin petroleum plastic packaging. Unilever is committed to all plastic packaging being fully reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025, with the share of recycled plastic in packaging no less than 25%. Coca-Cola — often branded the world’s largest plastic polluter — committed to making at least 50% of recycled material in its packaging by 2030.

Governments are also moving to establish more circular plastic ecosystems, with different markets in Southeast Asia at different maturity stages on this journey. Malaysia has committed to expanding its overall recycling rate from less than 30% today to 40% by 2025, and launched Malaysia’s Roadmap Towards Zero-Single Use Plastics 2018–2030. Indonesia has made ambitious targets to reduce marine plastic leakage by 70% by 2025, and eliminate plastic pollution completely by 2040. Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam all have some form of plastic-specific waste strategy defined or partially defined.

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Singapore has also made important commitments to improve its circular economy credentials. In 2020, the country generated 868,000 tonnes of plastic waste, with just 4% recycled. It now targets to reduce the total waste going to landfills by 20% by 2026, and 30% by 2030. It also aims to achieve an ambitious 70% overall recycling rate by 2030.

Singapore is also promoting improved circularity in product design in the nation’s business community, championing full lifecycle assessments that contribute to green supply chains. Mandatory packaging reporting has also been introduced as part of the overall ecosystem of extended producer responsibility.

Circular solutions are key

There is a tendency when talking about plastic pollution to immediately jump to a recycling solution. A truly sustainable answer demands more nuance. It will require a full circular economy approach to solve this critical challenge.

The circular economy offers a virtuous cycle approach across multiple stages. Use sustainable plant-based raw materials where possible to replace fossil fuel dependence. Design products that are recyclable and reusable. Make products waste-free and as resource-efficient as possible. Sell access instead of ownership, leasing or sharing products. Use products responsibly to reduce pollution. Collect and recycle products and materials.

Following these sustainable practises unlocks benefits for both business and the environment. It mitigates potential risks related to scarce resources while improving operational efficiency. It increases innovation potential and unlocks new growth options. It even opens new market segments while strengthening existing customer relations.

There is no denying that plastic pollution is a major global challenge. The truth is we do not yet fully know the impact it will have on our ecosystems and our food chain, but the visceral reaction triggered by the thought of plastic-laden fish provides an emotive starting point for consideration.

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Big challenges need big ideas

While companies are already actively working in this area, we need to exponentially accelerate efforts towards a sustainable circular solution. Cross-sectoral and private-public collaboration is imperative, rather than leaving the ball stranded in the court of plastic producers. It will require governments, NGOs, state-owned-enterprises, and private companies working together to tackle this.

Initiatives such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste have made an important start, bringing together 90 major global brands to invest more than US$1.5 billion ($2 billion) in sustainable plastic initiatives. Formal measures discussed at the upcoming UN Environment Assembly would offer a more powerful platform — although talk of true global agreement remains muted.

Much like climate change, we need to encourage big ideas and disruptive innovation. That provides an opportunity for emerging companies to add transformative solutions to the journey. Ironically, there is no time to waste — we cannot ignore our responsibility today in the hope a single silver bullet emerges in the future.

Disruptive ideas in logistics to cheaply transport waste could provide a valuable enabler to circular economies. Lowering the cost of collection and transport in the recycling value chain remains a persistent hurdle. Technology or AI-driven solutions to replace labour-intensive waste sorting would also be invaluable. It will require an ecosystem of solutions to embed a sustainable plastic landscape.

Current mature technologies aren’t positioned to rapidly scale and address these challenges. Disruption and human ingenuity remain vital pieces required to solve this plastic puzzle. There is hope, however. 18 months ago, nobody would have predicted a one-year development cycle for a life-saving global Covid-19 vaccine — yet here we are. I have great hope that visionary innovation will unlock equally transformative solutions to transition our global plastic addiction into a sustainable circular economy.

Arun Rajamani is a partner with the Boston Consulting Group

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