What does it mean to ’throw something away’ in 2023? Until quite recently, most communities dumped unwanted material in unused landscapes or, at best, deposited it in landfills. As the volume of waste builds around the world, there is an increasing realization that the traditional, linear model of waste is incompatible with a sustainable society. In recent years, solutions have appeared which may help replace that linear approach with a circular model of use. While each type of waste material presents its own set of challenges, the ubiquity of plastic pollution has made it one area of focus.

The Asia-Pacific (APAC) region produced just over half of the world’s plastics (52% of 390.7Mt globally) in 2021. Because it encompasses so much of the world’s overall plastic production and is home to some of the world’s largest plastic producers, APAC can be a leader on the transition to a circular economy for plastic packaging.

The country-by-country statistics on plastic production and consumption are notable. In 2021, China was the largest manufacturer of plastic, contributing 32% of the global plastics materials production. Other Asian countries were also significant plastic manufacturers, with Japan’s production amounting to 3% of the global plastic production and the rest of Asia producing 17% of the world’s plastic.

These nations do this in part because the plastics business is lucrative. The overall market size of the plastic packaging business in APAC is predicted to increase at a rate of 3.2% Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) from 2021 to 2026, with the APAC single-use plastic packaging market predicted to increase at a rate of 5.66% CAGR to 2030. Along with the region’s role as a supplier of the world’s plastics, APAC countries are also users of plastic. Japan in particular stands out, with 11 times the rate of use of Indonesia and especially high use of single-use plastics like shopping bags and water bottles.

Setting the Global Agenda on Plastic: The Role of NGOs and Regulators

In recent years, we have seen stronger commitments from governments and businesses to reduce plastic waste and packaging, with an emphasis on circular economy transition and concrete target setting. In 2022, for example, the United Nations Environment Assembly endorsed a resolution to end plastic pollution and agreed to implement an international, legally binding agreement by the end of 2024. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Commitment has signatories accounting for more than 20% of the plastic packaging market, including companies such as The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo who have set ambitious 2025 targets to reduce plastic waste and progress the move to a circular economy.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Plastics Pact Network is a global effort to align national and regional initiatives to implement circular economy solutions for plastic. Although this effort has less uptake within the APAC region than elsewhere, it does include a regional Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Island nations (ANZPAC) Plastics Pact. India also launched its own India Plastics Pact in 2021, aligned with the same principles of promoting and enabling public-private partnerships to tackle plastic waste.

China announced its five-year action plan for reducing plastic pollution in 2021, including bans on non-degradable plastic bags in supermarkets and shopping malls, in major cities, and in food delivery services. Japan enacted its Plastic Resource Circulation Act in 2022, following the founding of the Japan Partnership for Circular Economy (J4CE) the year before “for the purpose of strengthening public and private partnerships, with the aim of further fostering understanding of the circular economy among a wide range of stakeholders.”

In light of these changes, corporations around the world are working to set, refine, and report on their circular economy targets. Many companies are focusing on short-term recyclable, re-usable and compostable packaging targets, increasing the recycled content of products, and ultimately moving towards approaches grounded in product stewardship. Overall, companies are taking increasing responsibility for the post-consumer waste they generate and viewing waste as part of a product’s lifecycle.

The global trend towards corporate product stewardship follows the European Union’s Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes, which all EU member states are required to legislate on by 2024. Although there is currently much less appetite in the APAC region to implement legislation around product stewardship, for APAC companies operating globally and planning for the future, considering product stewardship is a next logical step.

Leadership and Innovation in Packaging

In the absence of regulatory pressure for product stewardship, corporations in APAC often take the lead on igniting changes to stem the tide of plastic pollution. Several movements have emerged:

  • Making Recycling Easier: For example, Watsons, a leading Asian health and beauty retailer, has collaborated with major international cosmetics brands like L’Oreal, Maybelline, and Garnier to launch recycling programmes in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia. Collection bins in Watsons stores allow customers to dispose of their empty cosmetics packaging, which limits the mismanagement of plastic packaging waste in the region.
  • Innovative Packaging: Along with efforts to recycle traditional plastic, innovations in non-plastic food and beverage packaging can also contribute to solutions. The Vietnamese healthy snack brand Lecka was the region’s pioneer in successful use of home compostable and recyclable food packaging. Thai beer brand Singha has developed 100% biodegradable packaging for some products, replacing the traditional plastic film with coating-free virgin fibre paper and soy-based inks.
  • High-Tech Solutions: Multiple APAC stakeholders are also developing innovative alternatives to traditional plastic disposal. Samsara Recycling, an Australian start-up, is collaborating with the Australian National University to develop the technology of PETase enzymes, which can revert complex plastics (i.e. polymers) into monomers. Monomers are the building blocks of plastic and allow to produce new plastic materials with the same quality and value as virgin plastic. Samsara is also partnering with Woolworths to trial their technology in their packaging, and is supported by Main Sequence, CSIRO’s deep tech investment fund.
  • Improving Waste Collection: The region also fostered the development of incentives for better plastic waste collection. In 2022, the Thai company Trash Lucky partnered with Coca-Cola to give away valuable prizes, such as a gold bullion or an iPhone, with draw tickets which are earned by donating recyclable plastic products to Trash Lucky.

Difficulties Ahead

Some serious challenges remain before APAC can truly achieve workable solutions for plastics pollution. One big issue facing corporations is a lack of consistency in applying definitions of recyclability, re-useability, and compostability for materials and products across different countries. Since these products are often produced in multiple countries, or are intended for sale in a country other than where they are manufactured, this can be particularly problematic for global companies. It can also result in greenwashing, whether deliberate or inadvertent.

Partners in Progress

Organizations displaying leadership and providing spaces for collaboration include:

  • The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (How to Build a Circular Economy | Ellen MacArthur Foundation) is a UK-based charity promoting circular economy and supporting independent research which is broadly-accepted as the gold standard of circular economy practices, globally.
  • The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) (https://apco.org.au/) is an Australia-based not for profit leading the development of a circular economy for packaging in Australia. APCO draws heavily on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s work.
  • WRAP Asia Pacific is a regional arm of WRAP, the UK-based climate action NGO working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to bring together governments and organizations to tackle plastic packaging, textiles, food and drink (WRAP Asia Pacific - The Climate Crisis: Act Now)

Taking an APAC-Wide View of Plastic Pollution

Looking at plastic pollution as a region-wide challenge, one that impacts myriad corporations within multiple nations, reveals new avenues to work with in solving the problem. It reveals that solutions cannot be based only on individual regulations or campaigns, or by only addressing one type of plastic. Instead, the problem must be viewed as one for the entire region to solve together.

Overall, there has been a necessary shift away from the inherent material properties of individual materials towards assessing products in their assembled, ‘as sold’ state; however there is also increasing interest in actual post-consumer collection and effective recycling rates. If a product is technically recyclable, but is sold in an area which lacks recycling capability or capacity, or where rates of recycling are low, can it truly be considered as anything other than waste?

This question highlights the difficulties in data availability, accuracy, and management as we try to manage waste flow through the whole product supply chain. This means moving towards a redefinition of what would traditionally represent the ‘end-of-life,’ and which the circular economy seeks to reinvent as part of a lifecycle. We must also start to realize the importance of tackling these problems on both public- and private-sector fronts, working together to change the course of plastic packaging pollution.