How Innovative Technologies and Business Models Enable a Circular Plastics Economy

Without action to manage and reduce plastic waste, up to 53 billion metric tonnes of plastic could enter the world’s oceans by 2030. Photo credit: ADB.

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A wide range of new solutions is able to avoid, reduce, collect, recycle, and clean up plastic waste. 

Introduction

Plastic pollution has grown to become a global crisis. Around 11 million metric tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans every year and disperse into very small particles. These microplastics have been found in the highest mountain peaks and in the deepest parts of the ocean. Without action to manage and reduce plastic waste, up to 53 billion metric tonnes of plastic could enter the world’s oceans by 2030.

In Asia and the Pacific, plastic consumption and waste generation per capita is small but growing, and waste management in the region is a major challenge. Many developing countries lack infrastructure to manage plastic waste resulting from a fast-growing economy and consumerism. In the Pacific, waste management challenges can become critical due to limited land availability and a heavy reliance on imports, which generates more waste from single-use packaging. New behaviors resulting from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic have added to the amount of plastic waste generated by online shopping, food deliveries, and infectious medical waste. 

Reducing plastic use and waste requires holistic and interdisciplinary interventions and a framework of enabling policies, financing, and social engagement to be effective.

This article summarizes discussions on how to make oceans plastic-free at the Healthy Oceans Tech and Finance Forum of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in January 2022. Spotlighted solutions involve innovative technologies and approaches that can promote integrated and socially inclusive solid waste management systems, high-quality recycling, and the transition to a circular economy for plastics. 

What is a circular economy?

A circular economy is based on the idea that anything produced should return to the earth. Its basic principles are: 1) waste is designed out of systems; 2) products and materials are kept in use; and 3) natural ecosystems are regenerated. 

Over the last 60 years, economies operated on the assumption that the planet has infinite resources and infinite capacity to absorb waste. Dwindling resources, accelerating environmental degradation, and climate change show that this is not the case.  

In the waste value chain, there are upstream and downstream innovations that can be implemented to enable the shift from a linear “take-make-waste” economy to a circular economy.

  • Upstream innovations call for a rethinking of how products and services are designed, including new business models and new or different materials. Design is an important element for circularity. Packaging, such as a glass bottle or compostable bag, may be considered sustainable because it generates minimal waste; however, if it is not designed with recyclable materials, as is the case with colored glass bottles, or if it is single-use, like a traditional trash bag or sachet, then it is not circular. Products made with durable and recyclable materials, such as canvas shopping bags and the clear glass or polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles used by beverage companies, are circular. 
  • Downstream innovations concern products and materials after first use, including their collection, sorting, and recycling. The circular economy relies on strong waste management and recycling systems to ensure that materials are captured, processed, and circulated back to production.
Why do we need a circular plastics economy?

As a material, plastic is built to last—it is reusable and, in some cases, recyclable. However, continuing reliance on virgin plastics will only increase land-based and marine pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and persistent organic pollutants (e.g., dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane or DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs). 

A circular plastics economy can reduce the need for new plastic production and keep plastics for reuse as long as possible. It comes with many benefits, including reduced pollution, green livelihood opportunities, savings for governments and industries, and strengthened and empowered local communities. 

A range of challenges stand in the way of implementing an effective, functional circular plastics economy, including high transition costs, inflexible institutional structures, ubiquitous products designed for disposal, weak or absent logistics and reverse logistics systems, and a general lack of public awareness and capacity to change.

A 2020 study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ proposes a system change scenario that reduces 80% of annual plastic pollution by 2040 through complementary and concurrent interventions across the value chain, including reducing plastic production and consumption, substituting plastic with compostable materials, designing for recycling, and investing in waste management and recycling infrastructure. While some new business models and technologies are less mature and may be perceived as higher risk, the amount of capital investment needed to implement the system change scenario from 2021 to 2040 (up to $630 billion) is still less compared to business-as-usual (up to $740 billion).

What are the circular solutions for reducing plastic pollution?

There is a wide range of innovative solutions that are able to avoid, reduce, collect, recycle, and clean up plastic waste. Many are already being implemented in Asia and the Pacific, while many more cutting-edge technologies are being developed and piloted in high-income countries.

Koinpack is Indonesia's first deposit-based reusable packaging system for everyday goods, where consumers use and receive cash upon returning containers, which are then cleaned and refilled in a central location. For food deliveries, barePack in Singapore offers reusable containers that can be returned through drop-off points and are sanitized by participating restaurants.

There are community-driven initiatives. The digital app mymizu uses crowdsourcing, education, and partnerships to map out and develop a community of water-refilling spots throughout Japan and beyond. In the Philippines, Wala Usik piloted the refilling model at the neighborhood level with sari-sari stores (community stores) selling fast-moving consumer goods.

Repairing a product helps to extend its life, enabling its reuse and contributing to waste reduction. Swedish clothing label Nudie Jeans provides free repair services and repair kits to their customers, as well as taking back and reselling second-hand jeans. This has helped the company save thousands of kilograms of textiles and reduce its contribution to microplastic pollution.

New technologies and approaches are being developed to better automate and incentivize waste collection. PlusTreat in Indonesia and Superbin in the Republic of Korea produce reverse vending machines, which enable consumers to directly deposit specific types of waste, such as empty plastic bottles or cans and receive cash in return. Plastic credit programs, which are offered by organizations like Viet Nam’s TONTOTON and Canada’s Plastic Bank,  encourage companies to reduce their “plastic footprint” and meet sustainability targets by financing waste collection initiatives. 

Digitalization presents an opportunity for improving the quality and efficiency of the waste sorting process. Digital watermark technology, such as those developed by Global Material & Asset Fond (GMAF) in Denmark and the Holy Grail 2.0 project, contain information on different types of materials, which can be printed or embossed on packaging and then "read" by high-resolution cameras. Headquartered in Germany, Steinertoffers solutions using artificial intelligence-based sorting programs, which are able to analyze and detect different types of materials and use machine learning to create new sorting programs.

Recycling technologies are vital for recovering plastics and keeping them in use. Companies like Envirotech Waste Recycling in the Philippines collect and recycle plastics, converting them into products such as construction materials and furniture. The Precious Plastic project provides open-source designs and low-cost machines to enable organizations and communities to build their own plastic recycling facilities.

Advanced recycling technologies can turn solid plastics into raw materials that can be remade into virgin-quality plastics. Japanese beverage company Suntory Group helped to develop a pioneering bottle-to-bottle recycling technology for PET bottles, which processes flakes from recycled bottles and then directly manufactures preforms. In India, Lucro and Banyan Nation offer proprietary technologies that remove inks and contaminants from plastic materials to supply high-quality recycled granules.

New solutions are also being developed to address emerging issues. During the pandemic, GMAF Circular Medico developed a surgical mask that is 98% recyclable, which may help reduce infectious medical waste. 

The circular plastics economy places emphasis on prevention of plastic leakage. But solutions are still needed to clean up plastic debris from the world’s rivers and oceans and to prevent further environmental damage. Solar-powered river cleaning technologies for gathering plastic debris are being offered by Finnish startup RiverRecycle and nonprofit The Ocean Cleanup. RiverRecycle’s business model includes transforming collected plastics into oil through pyrolysis. With its Interceptor technology, The Ocean Cleanup, together with Royal HaskoningDHV, is targeting 80% of river pollution by cleaning up around 1,000 rivers.

Developing better waste management and recycling solutions need accurate data and rigorous analysis. New technologies are able to more accurately map out data on plastic pollution and waste management systems, as well as widen access to such data to the public. Global Plastic Watch provides near real-time detection and monitoring of plastic waste sites using artificial intelligence and free satellite imagery from the European Space Agency and NASA. The Plastics Recovery Insights Steering Model (PRISM), designed by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, provides publicly available data on plastic waste and has data modelling functions and forecasts. Kabadiwalla Connect in India offers tech-enabled data collection on waste management systems with the aim of better understanding and integrating the informal waste sector.

Scaling up circular solutions will require the following actions:

  • Establish baseline data to inform policy and decision-making in solid waste management. 
  • Design enabling policies. The Government of Thailand introduced the Bio-Circular-Green Economy Model to promote sustainability, resilience, and livelihoods. The Philippine Action Plan for Sustainable Consumption and Production provides a guiding framework for the circular economy, including product lifecycle assessments, waste management and recycling, and green technologies.
  • Provide sustainable financing. Companies also need support in preparing bankable projects and minimizing the risk associated with new technologies. ADB is developing financing mechanisms that support the transition to a circular economy, including the ASEAN Catalytic Green Finance Facility, Blue Southeast Asia Finance Hub, and SME BlueImpact Asia.
  • Support innovation, research and development, and capacity building. Helping startups and enterprises is key to increasing the uptake of circular economy technologies.
  • Build communities and networks. Diverse stakeholders need to come together to strengthen and provide a growth path to solution providers. The Incubation Network helps early-stage ventures and organizations working on plastic waste reduction through a network of experts who can provide technical guidance, knowledge resources, and support to integrate social and gender inclusive strategies.
  • Design standards for recyclability. The National Resources Recycling Association in the People’s Republic of China is working other groups to set a standards system for recycling plastics, including for plastic infusion or IV bags. This was piloted in medical facilities and led to the launch of an online traceability system for easier recovery and recycling of these bags. It is also marking "easy-to-collect and easy-to-recycle" products with a blue “Double Easy” logo.
  • Promote behavior change through waste education. A holistic approach includes promoting waste segregation and other practices that support downstream waste management practices to households and business organizations. 
Recommendations

Solutions should be holistic and integrated, with a strong focus on upstream innovations. The most cost-effective solutions are those that reduce plastic production, consumption, and waste. While there are many new recycling technologies, they are not a panacea and are more resource-intensive to implement. 

Technologies must be rolled out using an incremental approach. When selecting and implementing technologies, a community should start with something basic that works and addresses its needs, before graduating to advanced technologies.

Solutions must be adapted to the local context. Consultations with stakeholders, surveys, demographic and feasibility studies, and other forms of research should be undertaken to inform how a solution will be implemented in a community.

Industries must look beyond managing and recycling PET. While PET is the easiest plastic to manage, it is only a fraction of all plastic waste.  

Governments should invest in formalizing and building the capacity of the informal waste sector. Informal waste workers fill a critical gap in the waste management and recycling system, and they must be taken into consideration when a new business model or technology is introduced. Implementing inclusive business models, such as franchising reverse vending machines to informal sector associations or microentrepreneurs, can help facilitate the uptake of new technologies while bringing better livelihood opportunities. Capacity development can help informal workers to diversify their services.

Governments can benefit from participating in global and regional initiatives on marine plastic reduction. Intergovernmental efforts can facilitate knowledge sharing and cooperation on transboundary management of marine plastics. The Coordinating Body on Seas of East Asia convenes nine countries to manage the marine environment, and it oversees the Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter. Another area of multilateral cooperation is the United Nations initiative to forge a legally binding treaty to reduce plastic pollution.

Resources

Asian Development Bank. 2022. Healthy Oceans Tech and Finance Forum: Innovative Solutions for Asia and the Pacific. 26 January to 28 January. 

Erin Sinogba
Consultant, Asian Development Bank

Erin has worked with a number of international and regional organizations, leading communications, knowledge management, policy advocacy, campaigning, and project management related to environmental protection and climate change. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and Global Development Studies from Grinnell College in Iowa, United States.

James Baker
Senior Circular Economy Specialist (Plastic Wastes), Climate Change, Resilience, and Environment Cluster, Climate Change and Sustainable Development Department, Asian Development Bank

James leads the regional marine plastics reduction program and supports operationalization of Strategy 2030 Operational Priority 3 and the Healthy Oceans Action Plan. He also supports country programming and sovereign and private sector project teams in identifying and promoting circular economy activities within their programs and investments. Prior to ADB, he was in senior project development and investment roles, and his background was in industrial recycling. He is studying for his PhD at University of Leeds.

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The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

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