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Steering towards a sustainable plastics ecosystem in Singapore

Arun Rajamani and Marc Schmidt
Arun Rajamani and Marc Schmidt  • 6 min read
Steering towards a sustainable plastics ecosystem in Singapore
Photo: Nick Fewings via Unsplash
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Plastics have transformed our modern world, providing a flexible, durable, light-weight material with a remarkable range of applications. Along with these benefits, however, come undeniable challenges, as our reliance on plastics generates a growing pollution burden.

Global plastics consumption doubled in the two decades from 2000 to 2020, reaching 460 million tonnes. Demand is expected to triple further by 2060, emphasising a growing need for both private and public stakeholders to develop and deploy effective solutions to enhance plastics circularity.

According to research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), just 9% of plastics were recycled as of 2019, and 22% mismanaged, with an estimated 11 metric tonnes of plastics flowing into our global oceans annually. Plastic pollution, like demand, is expected to triple to 2060, framing a serious sustainability challenge for our planet.

This is a global challenge, but one Singapore is acutely exposed to through limited land availability and a consumption-heavy economy. Singapore generates 76kg of single-use plastic waste per capita, according to industry reports, making it the leading single-use plastic polluter globally by this measure.

Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has developed an adaptive Circular Framework to help inform a circular plastics ecosystem for stakeholders in Singapore and beyond, looking at ways to maintain the benefits of these versatile materials while mitigating the impact on our nation and our planet.

Improving an evolving plastics landscape

See also: Major financial institutions form Impact Disclosure Taskforce to guide corporates, sovereigns on achieving UN SDGs

Not all plastics are made equal, and understanding the global plastics landscape is critical to identifying appropriate solutions. Of plastics consumption, 60% is utilised for just three sectors — packaging (consumer and industrial), building and construction, and automotive industries. Packaging accounts for the greatest demand, responsible for 154 million metric tonnes per annum (MMtpa) of annual demand — more than building and construction (63MMtpa) and automotive (60MMtpa) combined.

Digging deeper into the sub-applications of various plastic materials further illuminates a lopsided landscape. An analysis of the top 20 sub-applications reveals that the five largest sub-applications — food packaging flexibles, PET (polyethylene terephthalate) beverage bottles, PVC (polyvinyl chloride) piping for water/utilities, stretch and shrink wrap LDPE (low-density polyethylene), and PP (polypropylene) for automotive interior and exterior — consume around 94MMtpa, or about 20% of total global plastics.

Singapore is a nation with unique considerations when it comes to its circular ecosystem. The land-limited national dynamic leaves Singapore heavily reliant on Semakau Landfill — the sole source of waste currently projected to run out of space by 2035. This creates a critical imperative to rapidly accelerate plastics circularity.

See also: Major financial institutions form Impact Disclosure Taskforce to guide corporates, sovereigns on achieving UN SDGs

Singapore’s Zero Waste Masterplan aims to increase the overall recycling rate to 70% by 2030. This is backed by wider plans under the Singapore Green Plan to reduce waste-to-landfill per capita per day by 20% by 2026.

Singapore is also looking to innovative ways to address land usage alongside an integrated recycling ecosystem, with the nation’s Integrated Waste Management Facility providing a co-located solution for water and waste processing. Phase 1 of this project is due for completion no later than 2026, bringing together a waste-to-energy facility, materials recovery facility, sludge incineration facility and food waste treatment facility.

Critical to building a truly circular national ecosystem will be ensuring the foundations are also in place to deliver plastics circularity. BCG’s adaptive circular framework offers an informed strategy designed to help stakeholders identify and deliver measurable change in the areas that matter most.

An adaptive circular framework

There are four key dimensions to address in an effective circular framework. The first is existing and developing business models, exploring existing solutions and available best practices. Policy and regulation are needed for financial de-risking or incentivising investments to increase adoption. Available technology is another essential component, looking at technologies that complement and support business models. Finally, societal engagement is important to involve broader groups of stakeholders to spread adoption and enable the business model.

In order to deliver a truly effective solution, our Circular Framework is designed to address the four core dimensions of business models, policy and regulation, technology and societal engagement which are critical to designing a fit-for-purpose model to improve plastics circularity. This should be undertaken as part of a five-stage solution:

Pick a framework component to start

Sink your teeth into in-depth insights from our contributors, and dive into financial and economic trends

Evaluate how each dimension supports the value chain

Highlight all possible options and identify the optimum choice for each archetype

Select examples of chosen options

Inform recommendations for industry.

If we look at the top five most-consumed plastic types today — PET, PP, LDPE, HDPE, and PVC — it is clear they have a wide range of applications throughout industry and society, in areas as diverse as packaging to building and architecture.

PET is the most prolific of these materials, and is responsible for almost one-fifth (19.4%) of total global demand. You can see that demand in the water bottles bubbling away in every office cooler, or bottles of fizzy drinks crowding shop fridges.

The use of the most-consumed plastic types is dominated by consumer and industrial packaging, as well as the automotive segments. In total, 14 sub-applications represent one quarter of total global plastics consumption, with the highest shares belonging to PET beverage bottles, PVC pipes, and LL/LDPE food packaging. This data-driven foundation offers a platform for industries and governments to assess where their most valuable intervention lies to deliver a circular plastics solution.

Singapore is committed to meeting this need. The National Environment Agency has invested $37 million as of March 2022 to fund 15 research and development projects for treatment and circularity of waste streams, including e-waste, food and plastics. It is further exploring chemical recycling solutions to close the waste loop, accompanied by a feasibility study on a Plastics Recovery Facility.

Understanding the potential societal impact of any intervention, as well as the maturity of existing solutions, offers the final lens with which an effective plastics circularity strategy can be deployed. There has been a seismic shift on attitudes to plastic pollution over the last decade, culminating in a landmark agreement in March 2022 setting out a mandate by UN member states to negotiate a legally binding treaty on plastics. With negotiations now under way to establish a treaty targeted at ending plastic pollution by 2040, this issue has never been more prominent.

Singapore is a nation defined by limited land availability, but boundless innovation. These two facets of this dynamic nation will be vital in addressing the plastic circularity challenge. Investing in innovative solutions not only delivers a key national solution, but also offers a path to sustainable opportunities to generate value around the globe.

Both Arun Rajamani and Marc Schmidt are managing directors and partners at the Boston Consulting Group

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