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The Next Economy
Eastern Innovators Showing Feasibility of Circular Social Enterprises

Southeast Asia and the Middle East are emerging as incubators for plastic-diversion innovations; and beyond putting a dent in plastic pollution, they are helping reduce poverty and making a circular economy the wave of the present.

It’s no secret that plastic, particularly the single-use kind, has been polluting the planet in a plethora of ways.

Here, we focus on the entrepreneurial endeavors that are emerging to genuinely address the problem — and considering the needs of some of the world’s most vulnerable populations in the shift to a better planet.

ReForm Plastic

Image credit: ReForm Plastic

Based in Da Nang, Vietnam, ReForm Plastic is a social enterprise that offers upcycling technologies to tackle the problem of hard-to-process plastics — transforming them into products that can be used by the construction and furniture industries.

But ReForm Plastic is doing more than just turning plastic waste into useful products — it is creating new economic opportunities for local communities by way of its social-franchising model.

“We offer complete support to our partners, ranging from feasibility assessments to installation and trial production at the factory. We have already installed or have in operation 14 social-franchise factories across South Asia and Africa — demonstrating that we are not just talking, but also taking action,” co-founder Jan Zellmann , whose mission is “building impact ventures with a focus on decentralized operations for the greater good of the environment and society,” told Sustainable Brands®. “Moreover, we are ensuring our partners develop sustainable social-plastic collection schemes that provide informal collectors access to better equipment, healthcare, and improved livelihoods through better material access.”

Additionally, ReForm Plastic is integrating informal waste workers into its system to increase the company’s social impact.

Zellmann explained how the company’s social initiative, The Collector Network, “is designed to empower local, informal waste collectors by providing them with training, access to healthcare, recognition from the government, livelihood improvement opportunities through more effective collection, and other supportive services.”

Glassia

Image credit: Glassia

Although there has been debate over which material has a more profound impact on the environment, plastic or glass, the latter has some major advantages over the former — including the fact it can be reused and recycled for a seemingly endless amount of times.

Another Vietnam-based enterprise, co-founded by the same team behind ReForm Plastic, Glassia has created a refillable-packaging system for bottled water.

Zellmann emphasizes that “with the ever-increasing use of single-use plastics, it's critical that upstream innovation is adopted to reduce plastic usage at its source. One of the most effective ways to achieve this is through circular packaging models, such as refill and reuse systems.”

According to Zellmann, Glassia is the only social enterprise in Vietnam that focuses on creating sustainable refill systems — a display of how circular systems “can be implemented on a large scale and are pioneering the production and promotion of plastic-free bottled water, using purified water in reusable glass bottles.”

Venturing beyond the reuse of packaging, Glassia has established multiple refill facilities across Vietnam — which helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport while also keeping costs down.

Zellmann added that his company’s “Danang decentralized refill facility, established in 2021, revolutionized single-use plastic bottling with a circular model. We launched our second refill site in Ho Chi Minh City in early 2023, with a third one set to launch in late 2023. We aim to enable local refilling across Vietnam for accessible, affordable, sustainable products in every city and region.”

DGrade

Image credit: DGrade

Founded by Kris Barber — an apparel-industry vet who served as Director at Dirtball Fashion, a startup whose offerings included jeans made from cotton and recycled plastic bottles — in 2010, Dubai-based DGrade turns discarded plastic bottles into clothes.

“More than 1.3 million plastic bottles are produced every day worldwide. Plastic consumption must be reduced; but as plastic is one of the most practical, cost-effective options, quantities will continue to be produced — so, we must find a way to deal with it,” Barber told SB.

DGrade offers an additional solution to the world’s plastic-waste issue by upcycling it into Greenspun™ yarn to make uniforms, clothing and accessories. Barber proudly states that the production of Greenspun uses no oil — which is a finite resource — and “saves 55 percent CO2 emissions, 50 percent energy, and 20 percent water” compared to conventional production of virgin polyester yarn.

Besides making plastic trash into something much more useful than landfill and ocean fodder, the startup brings communities together by way of its #SimplyBottles recycling initiative — which, Barber says, “works with hundreds of businesses, schools and events to educate people about plastic pollution and recycling.”

“The plastic we collect through Simply Bottles is recycled into flakes and supplied to packaging manufacturers to support a circular economy.”

DGrade goes even further by addressing the environmental impact of the very product into which they convert plastic bottles.

“Another key goal we have is to supply quality products made sustainably, that can be worn over and over again. We do not promote consuming more but rather offer a sustainable alternative to companies already purchasing uniforms and other such items,” Barber adds.

Southeast Asia and the Middle East are emerging as incubators for plastic-diversion innovations; and — beyond putting a serious dent in plastic pollution — they are involving local communities, helping to reduce poverty, and making a circular economy the wave of the present instead of the future.

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