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Plastic, China & The Circular Economy

Plastic, China & The Circular Economy

Plastic is one of the most valuable materials on the planet, as it is light weight, durable and very long lasting. These are also the same reasons that it has become a disaster for much of our communities and ecosystems – because it is light weight, hard to recover at scale, and it lasts decades or more.

The complexity of plastic, the various varieties & colours and lack of recycling infrastructure make plastic pollution one of the biggest challenges

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest challenges of our time, due to the complexity of the material, wide range of varieties, colours and melting points, and lack of sufficient recycling infrastructure globally to keep pace with our consumption.

However, this also means there are big opportunities for those who can solve this challenge, aggregate material, create bring-back programs that encourage customer retention, and which tap underutilized reverse supply chains for material recovery.

There may be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050

As our ocean get overfished, with a growing global population that is consuming many more products and plastic, we are facing a waste challenge, which may lead to an ocean with more plastic than fish by 2050. Part of me believes this tragic result will come much earlier than 2050, due to the vast underestimation of the amount of illegal fishing going on in the world today, and the lack of global capacity for recycling and waste management.

The other part of me believes that we will never reach this outcome, because we are moving into an era of greater corporate and community enlightenment which will propel technological solutions into existence in a way that we have not seen in the past.

The future of plastic at the 5th Plasticity Forum

We hosted the fifth annual Plasticity Forum for the first time in mainland China in April, and with great interest.  The event focused on the future of plastic. The more than 20 leaders discussed the latest on design, innovation, materials, recycling and solutions, for a world without the waste footprint.

The event has been held in Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, New York and Portugal –  it is like getting a one-day MBA course in plastic sustainability.  This is an important discussion for all cities to have, as the world’s annual municipal solid waste generation is enough to cover all of Japan in 10m deep per year, and some estimates from the World Bank suggest this could triple by 2050.

5th Plasticity Forum

Today, only an estimated 10% of all plastic that is made actually gets recycled, but this is where there are opportunities, and the solutions are very much needed. On display at the Plasticity Forum were just such opportunities & solutions. Key headlines include:

  • Dr. Mike Biddle, Clean-tech Entrepreneur and Founder/Board Member of durable-product recycling pioneer MBA Polymers, who shared a strategic path forward for more responsible waste management (which he, like Larry Black, prefers to call “resource management”). Biddle also referred to MBA Polymers’ launch in Austria, just days before, of what it claims to be the world’s first commercial-scale production of post-consumer polycarbonate/ABS plastic pellets from shredded waste electrical and electronic equipment.
  • Akshay Sethi, the young CEO of San Francisco-based Ambercycle Inc. and winner of the H&M Global Change Award, spoke about his firm’s unique process of enzymes to digest the high-quality raw materials used in making PET plastic directly from textile waste, thereby enabling cost-advantaged recycled PET production.
  • Steve Davies, Director of Public Affairs, NatureWorks, and Dr. Lars Boerger,Vice Director, Head of Global Marketing – Biodegradable Polymers at BASF, both spoke on the Myths, Realities and Opportunities associated with bioplastics, and how they can soon be created directly from CO2, and also be designed to be recycled, or composted, depending on the application. Material prices are now also becoming competitive with plastics made from oil (and linked to oil prices), due to economies of scale and increasing demand from users.

You may have read reports in the past year about which countries are adding the most plastic pollution to the ocean, many of which are in Asia.

China is moving towards a circular economy for plastic

So let’s fast forward to a slowing economy in China, but one that is rapidly modernizing its methods of production, building new sectors that are leading in innovation, and even becoming robotic. Its resources are stretched, but now oil prices are low and are likely to stay that way for some time due to the decentralized oil pricing that fracking has brought to the equation, as well as the economies of scale that are now unfolding in the space of renewables, batteries, electric cars and the movement of smart money away from carbon-focused entities. This also poses a challenge for the recovery and re-use of plastic (versus the cheaper virgin material that follows low oil prices) and for those hoping to reduce the waste impact.

Some of China’s provinces and companies, however, are now moving into business operations that foster the growth of the circular economy, which means designing products that can be taken apart, re-blended, or recycled, so that waste is not an end result.

The China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Federation recently signed on to the World Plastics Council

This is complemented by the fact that the China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Federation (CPCIF) recently signed on to the World Plastics Council, which also has a goal of reducing plastic waste in the environment. The issue is that many companies do not yet know how to obtain good quality recycled content for their supply chains, nor do the municipalities necessarily have the systems in place to provide it.

Many companies do not yet know how to obtain good quality recycled content for their supply chains

Now enter Western buyers into this equation – the brands from afar who have moved much of their sourcing to China and Asia, often trying to sell to those growing populations. These new countries and markets, however, have not had the capacity to recycle or handle the waste that is created along the way. Even Hong Kong, one of the wealthiest cities in the world, has not figured out how to efficiently recover its resources. A win-win situation can now be created, however, as Western brands begin to face greater challenges and demands of sustainability in their own markets, and want to move up the value chain of brand reputation while giving back to the communities and populations they serve.

Scaled sustainability is key to reducing plastic pollution

At the Plasticity Forum, Richard Mattison, the CEO of Trucost, unveiled the impressive results of a recent study that we helped initiate, titled “Scaling Sustainable Plastics: Solutions to Drive Plastics Towards a Circular Economy.”

Trucost report says that simply by expanding company’s sustainable plastic initiatives across their industries could save USD3.5 bn in environ savings

In it, Trucost suggests that companies using sustainable plastics simply by expanding initiatives such as Dell Inc.’s closed-loop computer recycling project and use of Algix LLC’s algae-based, low-carbon bioplastic Solaplast, across their respective industries, could deliver US$3.5 billion in annual environmental savings to the planet.  This new net-benefit analysis offers a mind-set change in how managers make long-term decisions on their sustainability programs, putting value on positive externalities which benefit the company, employees, communities and customers they serve.

Enlightened buyers can make an enormous impact in the world today, because they can now cater to the demands, regulations, and desires of their home markets. They can do this while greatly benefiting their sourcing countries if they start asking for materials and products that fit within the circular economy.

An increasing number of suppliers in Asia and elsewhere want to be at the cutting edge of technology, recycled content, and material management, but it is the enlightened buyers from abroad who can really expedite the tipping point for the circular economy. Their demand for high percentages of recycled content, for example, coupled with economies of scale for resource recovery, would mean that the circular economy can kick into gear, creating jobs, reducing waste, improving brand value and reputation, and helping to stop the flow of material reaching our waters, which today is a high percentage of plastic.

“…enlightened buyers can make a big impact”

The supply is there, but the demand needs to be stepped up a notch or 10, and this is where enlightened buyers can make a big impact, for themselves, communities, and in the nations they source from. If this can happen, we have a much greater chance of always having more fish in the ocean than plastic.

Save 21 September 2016, for the next Plasticity Forum in London, as part the London Design Festival.


Further Reading

  • China’s Soil Ten – With close to a fifth of China’s farmland surveyed polluted, the Soil Ten Plan could not come sooner. Find out what’s in store for China’s “Hateful Eight” polluting industries and get the distilled version of the 231 actions in China Water Risk’s Soil Ten review
  • 2015 State of Environment Report Review – China says overall environment quality has worsened in 2015 with groundwater deteriorating for the fifth year straight. It’s mixed news for rivers but lakes & reservoirs see marked improvement. Get the latest pollution status updates from the newly released 2015 State Of Environment Report
  • Yangtze Flows: Pollution & Heavy Metals – Areas along the Yangtze River dominate Chinese production but at what cost? With Grade V water in its tributaries, rapid growth in upstream wastewater plus concerns over a disproportionately large share of the nation’s heavy metals discharge, can the Yangtze River Economic Belt still flourish? CWR’s Hu takes a closer look
  • Water-nomics: Trade-offs Along The Yangtze – With significant economic, water use and pollution disparities along the Yangtze River, China Water Risk & the Foreign Economic Cooperation Office of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, publish a joint brief to explore strategies to find the right development mix. Check out some of the key findings in this review

Plastic & water

  • Plastic Waste: The Vector For Change? – USD13billion is the annual cost of impact of plastic pollution to our oceans. Doug Woodring, founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance, shares challenges ahead and strategies for a plastics-free ocean
  • Unwrapping Packaging Water Risks -China’s paper packaging industry discharges wastewater similar to its entire coal industry. Explore the dirty secrets behind paper & plastic packaging with China Water Risk’s Feng Hu. Also, see how shifting consumer attitudes can bring about new innovations
  • Biodegradable Films: Save Water & Soil – Plastic mulch films help save irrigation water but unfortunately, the plastic residue pollutes the soil. BASF’s Dirk Staerke expands on the damage caused and how biodegradable films can be a win-win solution for both water and soil
  • China’s Economy: Linear to Circular – China is the 3rd country globally to enact polices to move towards a circular economy. See how & why China needs to make this transition; which industries are affected, what is the role of industrial parks?
  • Are You A Responsible Consumer? – With waste levels already sky high and set to grow China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor mulls over the challenges of being a responsible consumer from fashion to food to plastic. Be it as an individual or corporate, see what action you can take
  • Hong Kong’s Thirst for Bottled Water – Hong Kong has a plastic waste issue & consuming less bottled water can help this. Why then is Hong Kong still thirsty for bottled water? Mandy Lao explores consumer attitudes towards these
Doug Woodring

About Doug Woodring

Doug Woodring the Founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance, a non-profit organization which is focused on bringing innovative solutions, technology, collaborations and policy together to impact positive improvements for the health of the ocean. Two of its global programs were launched at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2010, the Global Alert platform, and the Plastic Disclosure Project. In 2008 he co-founded Project Kaisei, which focused on the plastic in the North Pacific Gyre, and he is a UNEP Climate Hero for his efforts. Woodring has worked in Asia for over 20 years in a number of industries which have been at the forefront of technology within their sectors, mainly related to the environment and new media platforms. Prior to working with technology startups, while at Merrill Lynch Asset Management Hong Kong in 1998, he proposed the company’s first global environmental technology fund which was later launched in 2001.

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