Mainstreaming circular plastic plans

July 01, 2022 | 13:18
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The increased use of plastics has accompanied Vietnam’s fast economic growth over the last decade. With growing urbanisation and a rising middle class, the demand for plastics has grown rapidly in consumer packaging, construction, household goods, and automotive industries because of their convenience and versatility. In 2019, the plastic industry contributed about $17.5 billion to Vietnam’s economy, equivalent to 6.7 per cent of the country’s GDP.
Mainstreaming circular plastic plans
Carolyn Turk - Country director World Bank Vietnam (left) and Kyle Kelhofer Former senior country manager for Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam International Finance Corporation

However, increasing consumption of single-use plastics and mismanagement of waste is visibly polluting the country’s cities and beaches, adversely impacting biodiversity and natural habitats, and contributing to climate change. These impacts are especially acute for Vietnam given its 2,000-mile coastline and dependence on key economic sectors like tourism and fisheries.

The good news is that Vietnam is moving from creating awareness of the plastic waste problem to defining solutions by developing action plans and setting ambitious recycling targets. Its national action plan for the management of marine plastic litter aims to reduce 75 per cent of Vietnam’s marine plastic debris by 2030.

And yet, important as these steps are, incrementally tweaking waste management policies and overloaded solid waste management systems without addressing the current extractive and wasteful economic model will not achieve needed long-term solutions. Therefore, we must tackle the problem more aggressively and plan for a deliberate shift to a circular economy.

The World Bank and the International Finance Corporation are putting to work their collective public and private sector expertise to support policies and investments that could help build a circular economy by engaging stakeholders across the plastic value chain.

We are developing upstream analytics and targeted interventions at the individual country and regional level to address both the stock and flow of plastics for this complex transboundary problem.

According to a new study by the World Bank Group, about 75 per cent of the material value of recyclable plastics in Vietnam is lost – the equivalent of $2.2 to 2.9 billion a year – because used plastics are not sorted, collected, or recovered. Although Vietnam has many small recyclers and an average recycling rate of 33 per cent for the four key resins researched, the volume of plastics recycled is quite small compared to inputs to the economy.

Circular economy approaches can help capture significant additional material value, but this will indeed require market and structural changes and significant investments to address infrastructure gaps. The private sector is ready to drive innovations in project financing, packaging design, new business models, and advanced recycling technologies, but it cannot do this alone.

Governments must help support a plastics circular economy transition via policies and standards that enable the three Rs of reduce, reuse, and recycle. Recent revisions to Vietnam’s Law on Environmental Protection (LEP) are a good start. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment should use this framework to develop directives and circulars that are enforceable and come with clear targets and responsibilities.

The Extended Producer Responsibility provisions under the revised LEP, which hold producers and importers of plastic packaging responsible for their waste management, will help facilitate increased recovery and recycling, especially for flexibles and other low-value plastics that are currently not collected by the informal sector.

The government could lead by prioritising purchases of environmentally-friendly goods (for example, products with recycled content) through a green public procurement programme. Similar schemes leveraging the substantial purchasing power of the public sector have helped increase the market share of sustainable products in Europe and Japan.

Although the current focus is on plastic recycling because that is where most investable opportunities are, the transition to a circular economy is not simply about recycling or more stringent waste management regulations.

Rather, it is about designing and enforcing the right upstream policies and promoting material innovation to eliminate plastics that we don’t need while keeping essential plastics recirculating in the economy without leakage to the environment.

Building on the launch of the National Plastic Action Partnership, the revised LEP, and other plastic pollution reduction actions, Vietnam can further raise its level of ambition by incorporating circular economy actions for plastics in the next revision of its Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Climate Agreement.

We must address materials management because conventional greenhouse gas mitigation measures like energy efficiency, solar, and wind energy projects alone will not be sufficient to close the climate gap in the long run. Circular economy approaches can help reduce the pressure on Vietnam’s already stressed solid waste management infrastructure by “designing out” waste, as in building the principles of using resources efficiently into the design stage of projects.

Solid waste volumes have doubled in less than 15 years and are expected to double again by 2030. Therefore, interventions must be supported by nationwide investments in solid waste infrastructure for better waste sorting, collection, and transport. Increased coordination between national and provincial governments will further drive waste management efficiencies.

As Vietnam transitions to a low-carbon growth strategy and aims for a green recovery, this is indeed the correct time for mainstreaming a circular economy for plastics in order to manage finite resources, design out waste and emissions, and restore the environment.

By Carolyn Turk and Kyle Kelhofer

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