Few materials have been more widely used than plastic due to its sheer durability, versatility and cost efficiency. Since the first synthetic plastic was produced in 1907, it has made its way into every facet of modern life, from space exploration to keeping food fresh in our kitchens.
The fight against the coronavirus pandemic would have been astronomically more challenging, expensive and drawn-out were it not for plastic-based products.
It is not an understatement to say that our modern society needs plastics to function.
Southeast Asia’s reliance on plastic is partly driven by socioeconomic factors: it is one of the most affordable materials for consumers and small-scale business owners who have lower purchasing power compared to their peers in Europe or North America. Thailand’s plastics industry accounted for 6.7% of the country’s economy in 2018, with local manufacturers depending on the sector for employment and growth.
But this low cost, ubiquity and ease of replacement comes with a dire trade-off — our oceans and landfills are choking on plastic waste with at least 8 million tonnes of it making its way into the oceans every year.
Even if we ignore the near-impossibility of getting rid of plastics entirely, doing so would have far-reaching consequences that may ultimately outweigh the benefits.
Plastics provide efficiencies of scale that replacement products simply can’t match — for instance, replacing the plastic used in an international shipment of goods by air with similarly robust materials would be much more expensive, or far heavier, resulting in a much bigger carbon output.
As such, we must strike a balance between the benefits that only plastics can provide and the dangers of misuse. The most realistic solution is a combination of all efforts to reduce the downsides of plastics use. If we are unable to get rid of it entirely, we must learn to create responsible economies around its use.
Reducing plastic at the source: The most efficient way to deal with the plastics problem is at its source. Producers are finding that investing in innovation and preventing waste from being produced in the first place is helping them connect with a growing number of customers who want to do their part and support brands that provide solutions.
Alternative materials provide one way to take hard-to-recycle plastics out of the value chain. ReNew Innovations, a Thai startup, developed Cellunate as an eco-friendly and recyclable coating to protect and waterproof paper. The Incubation Network has worked with ReNew Innovations to adapt Cellunate for food packaging, which is typically coated with plastic, creating multi-layered packaging that is hard to recycle.
Using more paper-based products in this manner would be a giant step for reducing plastic use in Thailand where nearly 60% of plastic leakage comes from food packaging.
Established plastics producers can also play a role in reducing pollution. The Nam Ngai Hong Group has been making plastic housewares since 1961, but it realised that it had a part to play in reducing plastic waste. In 2019 the company launched Nameco, a new brand, which uses bioplastics and natural by-products, such as wood, straw and coffee grounds and husks, to make biodegradable housewares.
This transition was not easy because producing bioplastics requires different machinery and manufacturing processes from traditional plastics. However, the company decided the investment to transform its operations was essential to produce more environmentally friendly products as well as to create a more sustainable business in the long term.
Programmes that tackle single-use plastics (SUP), such as the SUP Challenge, which we run with the Prevent Waste Alliance, play an important role as well. This programme provides mentorship and technical assistance to organisations that work to reduce plastic waste and find alternative packaging solutions in the food and beverage industry.
Building the capacity to handle waste: With our current state of technology, a complete elimination of plastic from our lives is not an option. This means that we require effective waste management for our ecosystems.
Rapid population growth and increasing urbanisation means we will be generating 3.4 billion tonnes of plastic waste a year globally by 2050, an increase of 70% from 2016, according to the World Bank.
The proper collection, sorting and recycling of waste helps provide clean and liveable cities and neighbourhoods, especially in poor and developing countries, which bear the brunt of plastics pollution.
Many countries also rely on an informal network of waste collectors, who are responsible for recovering about 97% of the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic that is recycled, according to a study carried out in nine cities in Southeast Asia.
These workers are largely unregulated and left to fend for themselves, which can lead to exploitation, dangerous working conditions and social stigmas.
To help address these problems head-on, in partnership with the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, we created Scale 100(t), an accelerator programme that will help three to five waste management companies develop their business, scale up their solutions and increase their processing capacity by at least 100 tonnes by the year-end.
Such programmes that focus on supporting companies that divert, collect, sort or recycle waste can help refine and improve the collection infrastructure that is essential to reducing plastic waste.
Empowering players with technology and education: Tackling the production and collection of plastic are important parts of a balanced reduction strategy. However, we must also focus on education as a key step in generating the new skills and knowledge that lead to better solutions.
Stakeholders across the region, be they producers, manufacturers, researchers or governments, can benefit from connecting with each other to share insights and solutions as well as strategies to avoid pitfalls and setbacks.
To help with this, The Incubation Network and RRS Asia have launched Circularity Concepts, a webinar series focused on sharing knowledge of new and emerging issues, materials and policies, such as producer responsibility and policy developments in Asia, the role bioplastics play in the circular economy, and advanced recycling technologies.
Well-educated consumers can also play a role in reducing plastic waste. Empowering them with knowledge and resources that help them identify which plastics can be recycled or composted, can enable them to make more informed choices about the goods they purchase and how to dispose of them in the most sustainable manner.
When consumers have options and companies act responsibly, we can attack the issue from both ends.
The plastics issue is a complex problem that requires complex solutions. Through careful analysis of issues and by working closely with manufacturers, collectors, recyclers, scientists and stakeholders across the value chain, we can develop effective solutions that provide visible long-term benefits without clogging our waterways and damaging our biodiversity, environment and health.