Asia is experiencing unprecedented growth and development in recent decades. The region accounts for 60 per cent of the world’s population, and by 2030, megacities of 10 million inhabitants or more will be located primarily in Asia.
This also means that Asia as a region has risen to become a true consumption powerhouse. Of the estimated US$30 trillion in middle-class consumption growth estimated between 2015 and 2030, only US$1 trillion is expected to come from today’s Western economies – most of the rest will come from Asia.
While this consumption rate has spurred the engines of several economies all over the world, greater consumption also means greater waste generated, in the form of packaging, disposable items, and old products. The prevalence of plastic as a cheap and durable material in everyday life, coupled with a society brought up with a convenience mindset, means that we are facing a greater trash crisis than ever before.
Asia’s plastic problem
Asia is not only plagued by its own trash problem. The ban on plastic exports to China has seen countries like the UK filling the landfills of other Asian countries – waste exports has more than tripled for Malaysia, increased by 50 per cent for Vietnam, and for Thailand, the number shot up fifty-fold.
With that, plastic’s non-biodegradable nature has taken a toll on our environment. Three quarters of ocean-bound plastic waste enters the sea via 10 rivers in Asia, at a rate of 2.4 million tonnes a year . Besides disrupting the delicate balance of our ocean ecosystem and posing great danger to marine life, microplastics are finding its way into our food, water, and the air we breathe.
Governments, industries, and citizens are all playing their role to address the region’s most talked-about environmental crisis. The food industry alone – with single-use food wrapping and disposable utensils as one of the key contributors – has a huge responsibility. How can we alleviate the impact consumerism has on the environment, while still meeting our everyday needs?
One way is to look to innovation and new technology to transition our throwaway culture to one that is focused on the circular economy, where resource conservation and effective waste disposal are top priorities.
One man’s trash, another man’s treasure
Taiwan-based Miniwiz epitomises the circular economy. Taking everything from electronic, food, agricultural, packaging to even automotive waste, the recycling company turns them into something new – whether it’s shoes, packaging, or even whole buildings.
Miniwiz Chief Executive Officer and Founder Arthur Huang started the company in 2005, after the success of his first breakthrough sustainable product line – a range of solar and wind-powered charging devices called HYmini. Since then, Arthur has taken human-made pollution and turn it into a resource, re-engineering waste into products that people want to use again.
Notably, Miniwiz is responsible for the EcoARK, a three-storey pavilion constructed for the Taipei International Flora Expo in 2015. The structure is made of Miniwiz’s POLLI-Bricks, a revolutionary building material made from 100 per cent recycled PET bottles. Translucent, naturally insulated and durable, the modular 3D honeycomb self-interlocking structure also makes it extremely strong without any chemical adhesives. EcoARK is made out of 1.5 million plastic PET bottles.
Speaking to Miniwiz’s Managing Director, Tan Szue Hann, he said that trash can be an abundant and a highly valuable source for premium-grade plastics and other materials, and that it makes business sense to look towards it to feed our region’s continued growth in consumption, while addressing our burgeoning trash generation.
He adds, “The key to making circular economy successful is to make the end-product attractive to consumers, so that they actually want to buy and use it, creating demand.”
Seaweed is the new plastic
But recycling is just the tip of the iceberg. It is even more crucial to tackle plastic waste right at its inception – at the manufacturers. While industries are working hard to reduce our reliance on plastic, the food industry faces a unique dilemma. The environmental cost of plastic packaging is significant, but how can we do it in a way that does not compromise food safety and preserve freshness the way plastic can?
Indonesia-based Evoware has set out on a mission to develop a sustainable alternative to plastics. The result is a seaweed-based packaging which is 100 per cent biodegradable, chemical-free and works as a natural fertiliser. It can be dissolved in warm water, and has a two-year shelf life without preservatives.
Evoware co-founder David Christian said that when U.S. plastics researcher Jenna Jambeck declared Indonesia as the world’s second-largest contributor of plastic waste to the oceans, it was a turning point for him. He also had first-hand experience of the toll plastic pollution has on the environment, having had his health suffered due to Jakarta’s air pollution.
To tackle this issue, David had looked to home for the solution. Indonesia is one of the world’s largest seaweed producers, accounting for more than a third of global seaweed production . Seaweed has been touted as the best candidate for bioplastics – it is cheap, takes up minimal land space, and can grow without fertilisers. David’s work with seaweed has also allowed him to increase the livelihood of Indonesia’s seaweed farmers, most of which live in poverty.
Adoption remains a challenge – seaweed-based packaging is still more expensive than plastics. There is a greater need for companies to realise that while new innovation can typically cost more upfront, the benefits in the long run will exceed the upfront investment.
In response, Evoware is also actively promoting living a sustainable lifestyle through various initiatives, including educational programmes, special events, and online campaigns. They recently launched Rethink, an ongoing campaign that highlights key sustainability issues, and encourages businesses and the public to essentially “rethink” their actions and practices that are contributing to these issues.
David adds, “For Rethink, we are currently bringing attention to the global plastic crisis, and we aim to get one million people pledging to be plastic free by 2020. We have also provided kits to help people kick-start their zero waste journey, where for every kit purchased we will be donating IDR 5,000 (~US$0.35) to our friends at Yayasan Prima Unggul, a non-profit organisation and orphanage. We hope to motivate more people to take action, and show how much of a positive impact each one of us can make to the environment.”
There is no one solution that can address our plastic pollution problem. The issue needs to be tackled with a multi-faceted approach.
For example, beyond recycling and redesigning products, a study on waste management practices by FIA released last September also encourages Southeast Asian governments to ramp up initiatives to improve their poor garbage collection systems.
This includes introducing initiatives such as a pay-as-you-throw fee, which the Philippine city of Bayawan has incorporated, and which Singapore is currently exploring the possibility of, as part of efforts to monitor and limit rubbish dumped by households.
For Crispian Lao, Founding President, Philippine Alliance for RECYCLING and Materials Sustainability (PARMS), the thinking that goes behind these different innovations and initiatives is promising. He said,
Fraser Thompson is the Director and co-founder of AlphaBeta, a strategy firm which specialises in sustainability issues.
Fraser will be moderating the sustainability panel at this year’s FIA Food for the Future Summit, alongside esteemed experts including Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida, Regional Coordinator, Chemicals, Waste & Air Quality, Asia and Pacific Office UN Environment; Crispian Ng Lao, Founding President, Philippine Alliance for RECYCLING & Materials Sustainability; David Christian, Founder, Evoware; Ng Pei Kang, Chief Executive Officer, TRIA; and Tan Szue Hann, Managing Director, MINIWIZ. Click here to register now.