Circular solution to plastic plight
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Circular solution to plastic plight

We are drowning in plastics. Unless we change our behaviour, there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the ocean by 2050. Solving this crisis requires us to do more than just banning plastic straws. We need a paradigm shift. We must adopt deep structural changes to our plastic production and consumption patterns in order to move away from the extractive linear model of "take, make, use and dispose" towards a "closed-loop" circular economy -- an economy that is intentionally restorative.

Over the past year, governments in Southeast Asia have been in the hot seat over plastic pollution. Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are some of the world's top plastic polluters. Together with China, they account for up to 60% of the plastic waste leaking into our oceans. In our joint report with ECCA Family Trust -- released last week -- we identify the main challenges as a lack of infrastructure and financing, poor public awareness, poor execution of recycling policies, illegal dumping, as well as unplanned industrial development.

The good news is that governments at both the national and city levels are stepping up their efforts to reduce plastic pollution. In April this year, the kingdom which is a major plastic polluter approved a road map to eliminate single-use plastic by 2030. As a first step, it is banning three types of plastics which deteriorate over time into microplastics by the end of 2019. The ultimate goal is for Thailand to use only recycled plastics by 2027 and turn plastic waste into a source of fuel. At the city level, five municipal governments in Thailand have signed up to the WWF Plastic Smart Cities initiative announced last month and launching in February next year. WWF is working with these cities to develop an action plan to fight plastic pollution, establish circular economy projects, and test innovative solutions. These efforts are laudable but we cannot rely on governments alone. To solve the problem, we need coordinated multi-stakeholder support for a circular economy.

Consumer-goods companies have been struggling to rethink their plastic packaging but an investment fund in Singapore may drive change. Investment management firm Circulate Capital recently closed its debut Circulate Capital Ocean Fund with a total capital commitment of US$106 million (3.2 billion baht) from PepsiCo, Danone, Unilever and The Coca-Cola Company (among others). The fund will make debt and equity investments across the entire plastics value chain -- from alternative materials to waste management infrastructure to advanced recycling technology. It seeks to demonstrate that investments in turning plastic from waste into a resource can provide attractive financial returns.

More and more closed-loop circular economy initiatives are emerging amongst local communities and entrepreneurs. In Thailand, for example, Full Circle Filament is working to close the plastic waste loop by blending recycled PET from water bottles collected by informal waste pickers with polycarbonate to create 3D printing filament. Trash Hero (Thailand), another social enterprise, runs regular clean-up events with the support of schools, local businesses and volunteers. Their education and awareness-building campaigns aim to create a new generation of environmental stewards and ultimately engender a long-term change in consumer behaviour. These examples represent tangible, low-resource action plans and programs that, when scaled and connected to other efforts, could potentially move the needle on plastic waste.

These questions of scale and coordination are important ones. And it where networks like AVPN demonstrate their true value. We help to remove barriers to scale by providing platforms and mechanisms that connect investors and capacity-builders with social enterprises and non-profits who require both financial and non-financial resources. The AVPN Southeast Asia Summit, happening in Bali, Indonesia in February next year, is one such platform that helps social investors build their awareness of new opportunities and find local collaborators. Similarly, our Climate Action Platform (CAP) brings together the widest possible range of stakeholders to collectively develop the scale, support and investment to tackle climate change. Projects like those by Full Circle Filament and Trash Hero (Thailand) are exactly the kind of opportunities that the CAP presents to investors.

I believe there are sizeable and valuable opportunities to create a circular economy within the plastics value chain in Southeast Asia. But at present efforts are too fragmented and uncoordinated to have impact scale. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that 95% of the material value of plastic packaging -- valued at between US$80 and US$120 billion annually -- is lost to the global economy after a brief initial use.

If we -- investors, businesses, governments, and consumers -- can move the plastics industry into a positive spiral of value capture, we will do an enormous service to both our oceans and our economy. A world in which plastic never becomes waste is not beyond the realms of possibility. But for it to become a reality, we need to work together.

Naina Subberwal Batra, Chairperson & CEO, AVPN.

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