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The United Nations Environment Programme said that a shift to a circular economy can reduce the volume of plastic production by 55 per cent and the volume of waste in the oceans by 80 per cent, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter. A successful transition is also expected to save governments $70 billion by 2040 and could create 700,000 additional jobs.
However, Jacob Duer, president and CEO of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, said financing is critical if this is to be achieved. “Traditional financial institutions, as well as new players, can capitalise on the surging global demand for recycled plastics to fund solutions at scale that could turn billions of investment capital into a $1 trillion circular economy for plastics that supports both developed and developing countries globally,” Duer said.
A March report by Google called Closing the Plastics Circularity Gap estimated that more than $430 billion needs to be invested worldwide over the next 20 years to ensure circular supply chains can meet the growing demand for plastics.
And according to Breaking the Plastic Wave, a study by The Pew Charitable Trusts and Systemiq, the collection and processing of global plastic waste between now and 2040 will cost at least $500 billion. But it added that if plastic is not collected in isolation, actual government costs for waste management could amount to over $3 trillion.
Duer said transitioning to a plastic circular economy starts with putting in place proper collection and sorting of plastic waste generation, which should include financially sustainable models that can be replicated to meet demand.
But these solutions do not come cheap, and governments have to be prepared to make such investments a priority. In Indonesia alone, where Duer’s alliance launched a programme with local authorities in May, he estimates that about $18 billion is needed for waste management and recycling before 2040, with $1 billion per year in additional operational financing for solid waste management required by 2040. “These numbers will be similar for other countries across Asia facing similar challenges,” he said.
Mobilising capital for waste management, which has typically relied on government budgets and development aid, is therefore “a key priority in developing markets in the region, including China, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam”, Duer added.
In Vietnam, the Aus4Innovation Program is one such group attempting to make its mark in this area after it launched the Plastics Innovation Hub Vietnam last week. The initiative is part of the Ending Plastic Waste Mission from Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, which has a goal of 80 per cent reduction in plastic entering the environment by 2030. Aus4Innovation said solutions based on science, technology, and innovation would support the Vietnamese government’s goals of building a circular economy.
Along with individual schemes like these, organisers of various events and conferences around the world are itching to get back on track after the pandemic woes suffered since 2020.
K 2022, scheduled for October 19-26 in Düsseldorf, Germany, is expected to draw about 3,000 exhibitors from over 60 countries and will highlight climate protection, the circular economy, and digitalisation.
Ulrich Reifenhäuser, chairman of the advisory board for K 2022, highlighted how technology can help solve pressing environmental problems. “Digitalisation plays a decisive role. If we talk circular economy, we directly go for the recycling process. So how can we recycle plastic products? The first step is we have to redesign products because the vast majority of them are not recyclable,” Reifenhäuser said.
Elsewhere, the World Circular Economy Forum will take place on African soil for the first time. The event, to be held on December 6-8, in Rwanda, will present some of the world’s best circular economy solutions as well as examine how businesses from Africa and elsewhere can seize new opportunities and gain a competitive advantage in the transition to low-carbon and climate-resilient economies.
The global south is expected to face among the most severe impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss, which is particularly true in Africa. At the same time, the continent has vast natural resources and a young, vibrant, and entrepreneurial population. As such, it is seen as having both incentive and potential to play a lead role in driving the circular economy model and building greater resilience across the globe.
African countries are far from being on a level playing field when it comes to a circular economy, wrote Matthew Maganga for ArchDaily last month. Instead of being an abstract concept, waste has extremely real ramifications for the urban health of African cities, creating risks of disease and flooding. This waste in many African countries and other global south nations, however, is not just a homegrown issue. Instead, a large amount of the waste found in these countries is imported.
“The structure of the global economy as it is today has created a wildly unequal system where wealthier countries send waste overseas to reduce domestic landfills. The European Union is the largest exporter of plastic waste, while the US leads as the top exporter for a single country,” Maganga wrote.
In Ghana, European plastic waste constantly washes up ashore on its beaches due to the country’s link to the Atlantic Ocean. And Kenya, despite a ban on single-use plastics in protected areas, is still inundated with plastic from the world’s developed nations. “Not addressing this inherent power imbalance when seeking the application of a circular economy risks the implementation of stopgap solutions in the built environment that function poorly as long-term projects,” Maganga added.
In African as well as European nations, a slew of new projects continues to pop up to address the numerous complexities. Amid the backdrop of Kenya’s plastic waste problem, a Norwegian startup has partnered with UN-Habitat for an ambitious project to build housing out of recycled plastic. Plastic waste is shredded and mixed with other materials to create a sturdy structure.
In the Ivory Coast, projects have been initiated in partnership with UNESCO that look to convert plastic waste into bricks, which will then be used to construct classrooms.
More global examples of the growing number of circular economy initiatives and technologies already underway include the Circulars Accelerator, a six-month programme run by UpLink, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) innovation crowdsourcing platform, to help circular economy innovators scale their ideas.
So far this year, 17 startups have been taking part in the programme. They include Aquacycl, an American company that generates electricity from untreatable wastewater; Done Properly, a company in Chile developing sustainable food ingredients; and Green Mining, a company in Brazil that recycles consumer packaging.
Meanwhile, the EU produces more than 2.5 billion tonnes of waste a year, but a circular economy could unlock $4.5 trillion of value by 2030, a report by Accenture estimated.
In Germany, a campaign is underway to educate consumers on the environmental impact of goods such as fridges and washing machines through Scale360°, another WEF circular economy initiative to help technologists, political leaders, and entrepreneurs change how products are made and consumed.
Other companies boosting circular economy innovation include Swedish denim brand, Nudie. It offers a lifetime repair service on its jeans and says it repaired more than 60,000 pairs of jeans in 2019 alone.
When it comes to these types of services in Southeast Asia, this region in particular continues to suffer from low recycling rates despite the rapid growth of consumption. About 80 per cent of post-consumer waste could technically be recyclable; however, global figures have languished at around 9 per cent.
That is according to Ellen Martin, director of impact and insights at The Circulate Initiative; and Delterra’s director of partnerships Jeremy Douglas. Writing for the Philippine Daily Inquirer in June, they noted that while poor waste management infrastructure is one of the leading contributors to the problem in developing markets, inadequate and lacklustre recycling practices must also shoulder some of the blame.
In Singapore, a country with an established recycling infrastructure, the National Environment Agency found that around 40 per cent of contents found in recycling bins cannot be recycled owing to leakage from food and liquid waste, as well as e-waste and styrofoam.
“These behaviours must change and do so rapidly if we are to prevent plastic leakage into the ocean in a sustainable way,” they explained. “As investment into improving recycling infrastructure and processes grows, the same, if not more effort, must be directed to narrowing consumers’ intention-action gap and facilitating positive behavioural change.”
To drive home the message and push consumers to act, personalised bottom-up interactions are also needed. “Put simply, people must feel that these programmes support them to make the change and without much hassle,” the pair added. “Shifting to a circular economy across Asia is essential to addressing the region’s plastic waste crisis.”