Without a doubt, plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental issues of our times. While an overwhelming amount of 8 million tonnes of plastics keeps on entering the oceans each year, the silver lining is that awareness is on the rise.
“There will be more plastics than fish in the ocean by 2050” is an oft-quoted research finding of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and is one of the several research findings in the burgeoning field of ocean plastics that has helped galvanize a global movement eager to work on solutions to tackle the problem.
Building on this global momentum, the European Union Delegation to Singapore and the Embassy of the Netherlands in Singapore organised a half-day conference on Wednesday 25th of October titled ‘Towards a plastic-free ocean: What role for policy makers, civil society and business?’. During the conference, businesses, policy makers, non-government organisations and civil society were brought together to act on improving the ocean environment and promote the transition to a circular economy.
In her remarks H.E. Barbara Plinkert, Ambassador of the Delegation of the European Union to Singapore stated, “This conference is highly pertinent and highly timely. It comes after the recently concluded Our Oceans conference in Malta where the topic of plastic waste in oceans figured prominently and was recognised as a global problem.“
H.E. Barbara Plinkert, Ambassador of the Delegation of the European Union to Singapore.
The attendees showed a great deal of empathy towards the topic. “We take from the oceans as if it is an endless resource and we dump in the oceans as if it was a bottomless pit”, said H.E. Margriet Vonno, the Ambassador of the Netherlands to Singapore and Brunei during her openings remarks, echoing the words of Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission. José María Figueres, former President of the Republic of Costa Rica and co-chair of the Global Ocean Commission, added “If we could go back in time and rename our planet, we should call it “Ocean” instead of “Earth”, as the oceans cover 70% of our planet and life outside of the ocean heavily depends on good health inside of the ocean. Therefore, the oceans are a responsibility of everyone.”
H.E. Margriet Vonno, the Ambassador of the Netherlands to Singapore and Brunei.
Throughout the morning, representatives and attendees shared insights, approaches and solutions that were encouraging and made it possible to believe that we can tackle this problem urgently to move towards a plastic free ocean.
Here are the 5 solutions coming from the conference on the different areas of government, business, society, universities and funding:
1. Government – Policy & Enforcement Needed to achieve a Plastic Free Ocean
A bill imposing measures on manufacturers to take back their post-consumer packaging in Philippines, a complete ban on plastic bags in Rwanda, a ban on landfills and free plastic bags in Europe; these were some of the existing or proposed legislations mentioned during the conference. There was also an acknowledgement of the fact that while creation of good policies is very important, strict enforcement of these policies in several Southeast Asian countries is equally critical and remains a challenge.
Europe’s ban on landfilling is a successful example of this, according to Karl Falkenberg, former Director General for the Environment of the European Commission. “A ban on landfill is not penalising economic success, it is contributing to it. Converting from a linear economy to a circular economy offers a range of opportunities. In the EU alone, the waste management and recycling industry employs 2 million people and many of those people are in qualified positions.” said Karl.
The policy approach of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) was brought up multiple times during the conference. With EPR, producers are given a responsibility for funding or managing the recycling, treatment or responsible disposal of their products in the post-consumption stage.
It was observed that while it was common for local Southeast Asian entities of companies to think that EPR affects the business negatively, other companies focus on the benefits. “As an industry, we need to embrace EPR”, Roelof Westerbeek, President Amcor Flexibles Asia Pacific, stated. “EPR is not a risk or a threat, it is a social responsibility that we have and an incredible opportunity to add value to society as a company. Contributing to the process of creating it will increase the success and effectiveness of EPR”.
Karl Falkenberg said he had witnessed the same phenomenon in Europe over the last two decades where corporates were worried when calculating the negative effect the European EPR systems would have on their business. In hindsight, more than 20 year later, he concludes that the calculations used were widely exaggerated and by following EPR systems a wave of innovation and entrepreneurship in the field of waste management and recycling was created, leading to a flourishing industry with 2 million job opportunities and EU-wide average recycling rate of 65% for all household and industrial packaging. The ambitious Circular Economy Package recently adopted by the European Commission now has a target of 75% recycling rates for all packaging materials by 2030.
Participants at the conference included representatives from businesses, policy makers, non-government organisations and civil society.
One of the other points raised during a panel was that the same businesses that are part of following EU EPR legislations are often found to be lobbying against it in Southeast Asia. On this point Ian Hayes, Global Packaging Development Director for GSK noted that businesses in EU were also initially unsupportive of EPR legislation, but once it was enforced business knew they had to go on with the program and made it work.
Up-to-date and consistent data on production and usage of plastics across various industries and in post-consumer use will be critical to ensure that any EPR legislations are effective in tackling the issue of plastic waste mismanagement.
In 2018 Singapore takes on the the role of Chair of ASEAN and EU coordinator for ASEAN. This offers a big opportunity for Singapore to influence regional-level legislations to tackle ocean plastics, as ocean plastics does not respect boundaries and this issue remains a regional, if not a global challenge.
2. Business – Solid Waste Management Offers Economic Growth Opportunities
On the sidelines of the conference, several businesses endorsed the need for a good legislative framework like EPR, provided that it is well-designed and implemented. Companies also saw the need to de-risk themselves from negative externalities posed by ocean plastics.
China recently announced that it will no longer accept various categories of waste imports by the end of 2017. A shutdown of borders might seem like a reason to panic, however the complete opposite has happened in European countries. Karl Falkenberg said, “Waste management and recycling business are delighted. These companies have been lobbying for an export ban on waste for years, and now their biggest competitor enables this instead. This is a fantastic opportunity for European recyclers.”
In Singapore, collection of municipal solid waste was done by National Environment Agency (NEA) itself until the 1990s and has since then been done the private sector. Ananda Ram Bhaskar, Director-General of Environmental Protection at NEA, explained that collection services were privatised as Singapore believed the private sector would do it better. He also noted that in Singapore household waste collection fees are included in the utilities bill together with electricity, water and gas. This means non-payment of waste collection fees by a household will lead to a cut-off of all utilities services.
Since waste collection across large swathes of several Southeast Asian cities is non-existent, a profitable, privatised model of waste collection is a system that other countries in the region could consider following. Such a system also offers opportunities to formalise and up-skill the waste management industry that still remains largely dominated by the informal sector, thus leading to better livelihoods and health outcomes for millions of people in the industry.
Dr. Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources & Ministry of Health was the Guest of Honour for the Conference and delivered the keynote speech.
3. Society – Shift in Mindset from Waste to Materials
The conference also indicated the consensus that rather than talking about post-consumer plastics as waste, we should collectively start talking about it as materials. Laura Allen, co-founder of Gone Adventurin, stated that USD 80 – 120 billion of business value is lost due to the current linear economy model of managing plastic packaging.
Kees Slingerland, Business Director of the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, added that a fee on plastic bag usage in retail stores can help bring the issue of excessive plastic use and wastage into people’s consciousness.
Jeroen van de Waal, CEO & Founder of OrcaScuba, pointed out that many of us adults have kids. While adults sometimes end up working in silos, kids can produce the “candy-store effect” where they can help us see different perspectives. Engaging kids in a positive way is key to making a difference. “Nowadays, there are many environmental documentaries available online that succeed in pointing out the overwhelming impact of environmental issues. But we must ensure that our children don’t get demotivated by seeing all of this or think of the planet as a lost case.” Educating the younger generation through first-hand experiences of the beauty of our ocean and harmful effects of ocean pollution can be a potent tool in driving greater collaboration.
This point was well-highlighted at the conference, where the emcees were two high school students from Dulwich College and St. Joseph’s Institution in Singapore. The students helped to bring home the point that outcomes of this conference were also about the future generations.
4. Universities & Institutes – Research Needed to Drive Circularity of Plastics
Professor William Chen Wei Ning, Director of the Food Science & Technology Programme at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore shared his experiences on driving circularity in the area food that is currently being wasted. One of the of the new and pioneering technological processes developed by his team of NTU researchers is to turn spent beer grains into a economically valuable liquid used to grow yeast instead of being used as low-value compost or animal feed. One of the other outputs of this process is cellulose which is turned into feedstock for bio-plastics.
Professor William Chen Wei Ning, Director of the Food Science & Technology Programme at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.
Considering many streams of plastics such as PET bottles or diapers can last for as long as 450 years, there remains a lot of scope to bring similar circular thinking into plastics recycling technologies or more recyclable plastics. The need for recyclable packaging, better design and material choice to make sure that packaging can be circular was touched upon during one of the panels.
However, creating recyclable plastics does not necessarily lead to immediate adoption by the industry. Roelof Westerbeek shared his company had developed a new type of mono-material recyclable flexible packaging but it was rejected by consumer goods companies as it was deemed to be more expensive than multi-material flexible packaging which is currently not recyclable.
On a panel question on bioplastics and its feasibility as a solution for the ocean plastics challenge, Karl Falkenberg noted that bioplastics need the right conditions such as the right temperature to fully biodegrade and break down. Jacqueline McGlade, the UN’s top environmental scientist noted in a 2016 report that biodegradable plastics such as bioplastic offer a ‘false solution’ for the ocean waste problem.
5. Funding – Addressing the Huge Gap in Asean
Ian Hayes brought up a point from the Global Waste Management Outlook 2015 report by UNEP and the International Solid Waste Association that 1% allocation of a country’s Gross National Income (GNI) is considered best practice to achieve 95% collection rates or higher so that the current linear economy models of solid waste management. “However”, he added “most developing countries in Southeast Asia only spend 0.01% to 0.1% of GNI on their solid waste management efforts.”
This indicated the huge funding gap that is preventing the creation of infrastructure for municipal waste collection, behaviour change campaigns to increase segregation rates and development of alternatives to landfilling or open dumping of plastics, especially multi-material flexible plastics (such as sachets) which are considered to be of low-value by the recycling industry.
With plastics now beginning to enter the food chain through our oceans, it becomes even more pertinent to continue building the momentum towards a plastic free oceans from a global and regional health security point of view.
We at Gone Adventurin are honoured and proud to have been invited by the European Delegation to Singapore and the Embassy of the Netherlands to be a part of organising one of Singapore’s first regional dialogues on the issue of marine plastics together with the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce and the European Chamber of Commerce Singapore.
We look forward to driving the urgently-needed positive and constructive outcomes from this conference to drive change towards a plastic free ocean.
This conference was held on the back of the recently concluded Our Oceans 2017 conference in Malta hosted by the European Union.
Watch the summary video from the conference here:
This article was written by Emilie Rost Van Tonningen and Ashwin Subramaniam.