Commentary: We are on the cusp of a plastic recycling revolution
A bold vision for how plastics are produced, used and reused, not just how much is recycled per se, is what will move the needle on our plastic waste, says University of Denver’s Jack Buffington.
DENVER, Colorado: Minster for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli highlighted in Parliament in early August that while 60 per cent of the nation’s waste generated is recycled, Singapore must continue building its recycling capabilities.
“NEA is currently studying e-waste and plastics recycling solutions and technologies available in the market, and assessing their suitability in Singapore,” he said, suggesting that Singapore has a recycling problem.
But this focus on improving recycling rates obscures the real problem surrounding waste because the intuitive policy response is to focus on marginally increasing recycling rates, where the gains are unclear.
LOOKING AT RECYCLING PROGRAMMES AROUND THE WORLD
Lessons learnt from around the world show how costly, inefficient and unimpactful current recycling programmes have been.
In the developing world, recycling programmes take the form of dedicated waste pickers, like those in India who go through city trash and collect discarded waste that can be recycled and composted, or broad-based incentive programmes, like those in Surabaya, where people get a free ride on a city bus if they recycle plastic bottles.
While they make wonderful, feel-good stories, the reality is neither gets plastic recycling rates to where they need to be.
Even in Sweden, the most widely acknowledged environmentally friendly country on earth, the recycling programme is highly regarded as zero-waste but its waste separation system is very expensive, requires complete adherence by all households, and does not even include plastic, the biggest scourge in our waste problem.
In fact, there is no nation on earth that is solving this plastic problem through recycling effectively.
Consider this: There are 380 million tonnes of plastic produced with an 8 to 9 per cent annual growth rate, and an average national plastic recycling rate of 7 to 8 per cent. At these rates, we are losing ground in the war on plastic.
Any incremental efforts through recycling programmes would be considered wildly successful if they pushed plastic recycling rates to 10 to 15 per cent but even then, the amount of plastic trash continues to grow.
GOOD THE ENEMY OF GREAT
Good is the enemy of great when it comes to addressing this problem worldwide. In the US, plastic growth is flat, and land is abundant, so the approach has often been to literally bury the problem through efficient waste management techniques.
However, in Asia, where land is scarce, and population and consumption growth continue to rise, most economies have no such luxury.
While policymakers have doubled down on improving recycling, which is good, a great approach is to shift away from the goal of increasing plastic recycling rates in favour of reducing plastic waste across the entire supply chain system.
A bold vision that breaks out of current flatlining recycling rates is what is needed.
Rather than policies to mitigate the use of plastics such as banning straws and other plastic disposables, we must more courageously and wholeheartedly look at developing closed-loop systems leveraging advanced chemical recycling technologies to produce recyclable, reusable plastics.
These newly adopted technologies to break down synthetic plastics to create new materials are currently in use today in laboratories and start-ups around the world.
Early fruit of such efforts are bearing out across the world. There are roads off Melbourne paved with recycled materials, including 200,000 plastic bags, over 60,000 glass bottles and toner from 4,5000 printer cartridges.
Nearly 2,000 tonnes of discarded fishnets are turned into high-end surfboards by engineering company DSM and watersports firm Starboard.
There is huge corporate and political backing behind this move to reduce waste. Unilever, the consumer good behemoth, had announced commitments to have all plastic packaging be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 and halving the environmental footprint in the making and use of their products by 2030.
A circular economy also provides a small country like Singapore with more heft to make use of limited resources. The development of this sector could also provide an engine of growth, as the circular economy could unlock US$4.5 trillion of additional global economic output by 2030, according to research by Accenture.
A VISION FOR PLASTICS
Imagine a vision for the nation to increase plastic recycling rates from the current 4 per cent to 60 or even 70 per cent.
Here’s the math on how it would be possible: In early plastic recycling efforts, scientists and entrepreneurs can achieve 65 to 85 per cent yields from a commingled feedstock of plastic and turn them into fuel for energy or other forms of plastic.
Different methodologies focus on different mixes of plastic that can be used, but if on average, about 80 per cent of a nation’s plastic can be chemically recycled using this technology and supply chain system, my study suggests recycling rates could be ramped up to 60 to 70 per cent, a target impossible through conventional means.
More waste management companies are moving into this greenfield sector. Brightmark Energy just broke ground on the first ever plant in the United States that turns single-use plastics into fuel in May and raised a whopping US$260 million in the process.
There is no question that a lot of work must go into designing a solution for a densely populated region of 6 million inhabitants, especially around the logistics of developing, collecting and processing these materials in a cost-effective manner.
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What this first needs is a refocus on research and development, as well as the commercialisation and scaling-up of new innovations in material design and recovery, as part of Singapore’s drive to become a zero-waste nation.
In this regard, it would be interesting to see what results the National Environmental Agency’s programme Closing the Waste Loop, launched in 2017, has borne in its efforts to foster collaboration between the industry and research institutes to recover value from waste streams.
The facts are clear across the world. We cannot afford to continue with initiatives that only result in a marginal increase in recycling rates but do not shift the paradigm on plastics and waste.
Time is running out, Mr Masagos said last month as he emphasised that tackling climate change is a national priority.
As part of this effort, it’s worth refocusing on the groundbreaking solutions in labs that can bring about the transformation of our business supply chain system, and Singapore stands in a good position to lead that charge.
Jack Buffington is a professor at the University of Denver and expert in supply chains and material science.