Circular economy and recycling consideration in packaging

Circular Economy

Ahead of the upcoming¬†Sustainability in Packaging Asia conference,¬†we caught up with Ashwin Subramaniam, CEO of GA Circular. He gave us a sneak peek of what we can expect from his presentation on day two, taking place during our ‘Circular economy and recycling consideration in packaging’ session.

Q. As consumers/end users continually push for more sustainable/greener solutions, what do you think is the biggest concern regarding packaging?

In Southeast Asia, where GA Circular operates, packaging such as PET bottles and aluminum cans are being recycled. Whereas several packaging such as multi-layer flexibles are not being recycled. One of the major reasons for this is the reliance on the informal waste collection sector, which prioritises and collects only those packaging types which have value in the recycling market. In our research across the region, we have shown that reliance on the informal sector is not a long-term solution as this sector will move to better paid jobs as the economies grow and evolve. So investing in collection mechanisms or incentives which support the existing informal sector but also support segregated collection of packaging from municipal waste is critical to ensure packaging gets collected and recycled, especially packaging with low recycling value. Lack of design for recycling is also another very big concern.

Q. What are some of the biggest opportunities gaining attention within the packaging industry? (Based off the Answer) How has your company chosen to react/adapt to stay on trend?

A big opportunity gaining attention within the packaging industry in Southeast Asia is in the area of voluntary industry-led initiatives or systems to collect and recycle packaging, in the absence of extended producer responsibility policies. GA Circular has been actively developing voluntary industry-led models in several Southeast Asian countries together with the industry. Another opportunity is in creating harmonised regional industry standards for packaging design and recycling. GA Circular has been leading national-level and regional-level assessments of these standards and doing benchmarking in order to identify gaps which can be addressed by private or public sector initiatives.

Future Focus:

Q. What industry topics are getting the most attention at this time? How are these factors influencing the future of packaging?

From our perspective of working in circular economy for packaging, plastic waste and marine plastics are two topics that continue to get a lot of attention. Many countries in Southeast Asia are coming up with plastic waste roadmaps and action plans. Investments in recycling capacity and developing databases to track waste are also getting attention.

Q. What does your company/organization hope to achieve over the next 5 years with regards to the future of packaging industry?

Our company’s goal is to enable the transition of the packaging industry in Southeast Asia to a more circular model. This can be done by designing out waste and pollution and by keeping packaging products and materials in use longer through better recycling or reuse. According to a World Bank 2018 report, municipal solid waste in Southeast Asia is expected to grow by 32% between 2016 to 2030. I am very concerned that for many packaging types the collection and recycling infrastructure is neither ready for this increase in “waste” nor resilient enough to withstand economic or demographic shocks. Our company is developing packaging waste datasets, industry coalitions and policy interventions for private sector, public sector as well as multilateral institutions to enable the transition towards a circular economy.

Q. What recommendations do you have for packaging professionals starting new sustainability initiatives?

From a recycling point of view, the top recommendation for packaging professionals is to support “design for recycling” initiatives for their products. This means first understanding the existing local recycling infrastructures in each country and recycling rates for their packaging products. Secondly, understanding what interventions will need to be made to ensure recycling rates for existing or new packaging designs can grow.

Q. How do you expect to see the recycling infrastructure change in Asia in the next few years?

As demand for recycled products across several industries increase, I expect investments in recycling infrastructure will also increase in the next 5 years. I also expect several new technologies such as chemical depolymerisation, pyrolysis etc to lead the way in terms of extracting the most value of the recycled products. For these investments and technological advancements to happen, it is important that the right policy frameworks, which look at packaging across its lifecycle, exist.

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