The region continues to face waste challenges. But with the right solutions, Asia-Pacific has a huge opportunity to turn the tide — finding more value in post-consumer plastic and closing the loop on waste.
The Asia-Pacific region is an innovation hub poised to spur key changes in the way the world processes plastic waste. With circular economy leaders such as Circulate Capital headquartered in the region alongside award-winning, homegrown entrepreneurs such as Lucro, new recycling technologies and plastics designed for the future are on the cusp of a major breakthrough — and that breakthrough couldn’t be coming at a better time.
Asia-Pacific is also the epicenter of much of the world’s mismanaged plastic waste: The World Bank estimates that half of the top 10 hotspots for plastic waste are in Southeast Asia alone. However, the broader region holds ample opportunity to turn this waste into new, sustainable possibilities.
For regional sustainability leaders including Japan, Singapore and New Zealand, plastic waste is already changing the way consumers understand and use products. In these countries, a growing amount of plastic waste enters formal waste-management channels and gets recycled. In too many other countries, however, there are still important opportunities to implement formal waste-collection mechanisms that meet growing consumer demands for sustainable materials. Innovative companies have the chance to capitalize on these existing challenges — diverting waste from landfill and incinerators to be recreated as new products or applications.
This landscape has created a unique moment for those looking to transform plastic waste into something valuable. Bambang Candra, Commercial VP for Dow’s Asia-Pacific Packaging and Specialty Plastics division, is at the heart of finding solutions and encouraging everybody — from individuals to businesses and governments — to think differently about plastic waste. Now based in Singapore, Candra has been with the business since graduating college as a chemical engineer 32 years ago. Born and raised in Indonesia, he has experienced the transition from traditional food packaging, such as banana leaves, to plastic packaging — which brings functionality, convenience and economies of scale.
Candra believes that when it comes to plastic waste management, Asia-Pacific is poised for a great transformation — with some nations struggling and others making solid progress, buoyed by sensible regulatory advances which enable them to do business.
“It’s a very diverse region,” Candra told Sustainable Brands®. “Some countries are very advanced; and some are trying to climb up the ladder.”
India is one country climbing the circularity ladder. The country uses around 14 million tons of plastic a year; and in the absence of the right infrastructure to manage waste effectively, the potential to repurpose plastic waste is lost. Candra believes that through collaboration with like-minded partners, however, organizations can transform this waste into promising business opportunities. And part of his remit is to work with all stakeholders to find the best way forward for industries, communities and the environment.
“Banning plastics altogether without offering alternative solutions isn’t a sustainable approach; and replacing it with other materials can often lead to unintended consequences, like raising the carbon footprint of the overall product,” Candra said. “The reality is that plastic is still a material that we need, giving great functionality like protecting food — let’s remember that in India, food waste stands at around 50 percent.”
Similarly, in China — a country that produces more than 60 million tons of plastic a year and only recycles 30 percent of it — the use of regulation must be nuanced. Candra noted that in its 14th 5-Year Plan, “China has developed robust guidelines that will demand greater design for recyclability and collection infrastructure.”
Dow recently revised its own sustainability targets to accelerate action on dealing with plastic waste: The materials-science giant promises to transform plastic waste by 2030, commercializing 3 million metric tons of circular and renewable solutions a year. This will require the building of industrial infrastructure to collect, reuse and recycle more waste; and Dow will need to expand its portfolio of plastics and packaging products to meet rapidly growing demand, particularly across Asia-Pacific.
Success depends on collaboration, Candra said: “We are working with our customers and partners, using our material science know-how, to design packaging with recyclability in mind. That means it is easier to collect, reuse and recycle. Our aim is to have closed-loop plastics circularity.”
In India, Dow has partnered with local recycling company Lucro to close the loop on flexible plastic packaging, which is difficult to collect due to a lack of infrastructure and contamination in waste. Lucro’s trademark Plast-E-Cycle process converts plastic waste into granules for recyclable products. It creates plastic film structures by processing plastic waste collected through various recycled streams in combination with Dow’s virgin resins. It’s an approach that also reduces the carbon emissions associated with packaging production when compared to using virgin resins. This has been used in collation shrink films — a form of secondary packaging commonly used to transport bottles and cans.
Dow must also collaborate with those tasked with collecting waste. In China, it has a partnership with LOVERE — a developer of smart sorting/recycling machines made accessible at various strategic points across the country for consumers to sort and recycle their plastic waste. It has also partnered with Luhai, an organization focused on collecting and recycling various kinds of post-consumer plastics. In India, Dow partners with Recykal, using digital technology to help waste collectors more easily access markets to sell their plastic to willing buyers.
“The key to successful collaboration is finding like-minded partners who are trying to address issues together,” Candra said. “We must find win-win situations so that partnerships are not just a one-off, but sustainable and long term — with each party seeing the benefit. It must make economic sense for everybody.”
Asia-Pacific continues to face waste challenges. But as Candra and his team continue to find out, with the right solutions, the region has a huge opportunity to turn the tide — finding more value in post-consumer plastic and closing the loop on waste to drive it out altogether.