Transcript: Sustainable Asia – Producer Responsibility and Packaging Design

Theme – Plink by Dorian Roy

Anja
Welcome to Plastisphere, the podcast on plastics, people, and the planet. My name is Anja Krieger, and this time, I’m going to share with you an episode from one of my favorite podcasts, Sustainable Asia. It’s run by Marcy Trent Long together with a team of excellent producers based in Hong Kong and mainland China. They’ve looked into many of the most challenging environmental issues: Deep-sea mining, the fishing industry, ocean noise, wildlife trafficking – and they’ve just launched their fifth mini-series on the topic of plastics, this time looking at the global plastics treaty and how it could turn the tide of pollution in Asia. But first, I want to play for you my favorite episode so far, from a series they did in 2021 called Mapping Asia’s Plastic Crisis. It was produced together with the German Heinrich Böll Foundation and the activists at Break Free from Plastic, and features voices and insights from Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore. Get ready to learn more about extended producer responsibility, and why rethinking the problem doesn’t always mean replacing the product.

—guest episode—

Marcy Trent Long
So these are the bottle caps separated…

Helen Panangung
Yes, its all separated.

Marcy
What are these?

Helen
This is just like styrofoam.

Marcy
Cup noodles?

Helen
Yes, cup noodles.

Music – Sustainable Asia theme by Alexander Mauboussin

Bonnie Au
This is Season 12 of the Sustainable Asia Podcast: Mapping the Asia Plastic Crisis. I am Bonnie Au.

Marcy
And I am Marcy Trent Long. Our team at Sustainable Asia partnered with the Heinrich Böll Foundation with support from Break Free From Plastic Asia Pacific to produce this series.

Bonnie
In our last episode, we heard from Melati Wijsen about her journey as a young activist to campaign against plastic bags littering the pristine beaches in her home of Bali.

Marcy
And speaking with Break Free From Plastic experts in Asia, we found out that stopping plastic pollution here can only happen when producers and distributors of disposable plastic packaging step up and take responsibility for the waste they’re creating.

Bonnie
This narrative of polluter pays in Asia will be a focus of this episode. But first, let’s travel to a traditional fishing village on the island of Lembeh in Indonesia, to get a sense for the plastic pollution there.

Sounds of sorting and voices

Marcy
A year ago, back when we were able to travel, I met Helen Panangung who toured me around a new Waste Bank. It was set up to collect and sort village trash there.

Helen
So then there is a card box all over and then for separating the glass bottle, and the packings or the packings, the mix.

Marcy
The snacks, right?

Helen
Yeah, the snacks, the soaps and then cornstarch, many many pickings, candy.

Marcy
Once the waste is sorted, it’s sent by boat to the city of Manado on the big island of Sulawesi, just to be sorted again and then sent to another city by boat for recycling. All those transportation costs have to be paid for by the nearby Lembeh scuba diving resort.

Marcy
Have you thought about telling the store in the village no plastic?

Helen
Actually, we try but then everything is sell in a plastic bag. It’s just like oh my god. This is the war never ending.

Marcy
During our visit, Helen seemed to have a sense of helplessness for their situation.

MusicQuarry Clouds by Blue Dot Sessions

Helen
Because even if we told them like not to bring all the product in plastic then it’s difficult for them because in the mainland everything is just come in the plastic. I don’t know why don’t care. I mean they know, right? The effect of the plastic that they produce. Maybe they have to start thinking about.

Bonnie
To figure out who is sending all of this plastic packaging to places like Helen’s village, the alliance Break Free from Plastic started an initiative a few years ago called the global brand audit report to create more transparency around the companies whose plastic packaging waste are most commonly found around the world.

Audio video clip: Break Free From Plastic Audit

Each year break free from plastic changemakers gather to reveal the top plastic producers trashing our communities. With brand audits, people collect plastic waste and document the brands on each item. The corporations polluting the most places with the most plastic are named the worlds worst plastic polluters.

MusicGathering Stasis by Blue Dot Sessions

Greenpeace speaker
And once they have all of these tallies, they see who the biggest polluters are, you’ll see all the same corporates year in and year out, and that’s what really sad, it’s really a tragic part of the waste issue because we have all of these multinational corporations that are constantly being shown as the biggest polluters when it comes to plastic waste and yet they haven’t really shown any real commitment or any concrete steps towards phasing out single-use plastics.

Bonnie
We spoke to Von Hernandez from Break Free From Plastic in Manila about the conclusions he drew from the global brand audit.

Von Hernandez
For the longest time, these companies slash polluters have managed to get away from their responsibility for this problem, right? They, through their narratives, and through their campaigns, they’ve shifted the burden to local government authorities, to consumers, you know, constantly priming us about the need for recycling, as if that would solve the crisis.

Marcy
As part of this recycling “narrative”, many multinationals that use plastic packaging have made bold commitments for 2030 as part of the Ellen Macarthur Plastic Global Commitment. Under this charter, they agree to recycle and reuse at least 55% of plastic packaging, and second, to increase the amount of recycled plastic used in their products by 50%.

Bonnie
But according to Miko Aliño, these recycling goals may not fully solve the plastic pollution problem.

Miko Aliño
I think it’s, in a way, a welcome commitment from companies to actually take on this commitment and actually reduce the amount of plastic they’re using in their production facilities and effectively increasing their recycling rate.

Bonnie
Miko Aliño works with GAIA in the Phillipines, an alliance of more than 800 grassroots groups, NGOs, and individuals across 90 countries. Their ultimate vision is a world without waste incineration.

Miko
What’s actually troubling is, there’s still a in a way push to increase plastic production. I believe it’s, it’s expected that plastic production would quadruple by 2050. So, the amount of recycling efforts that these companies are introducing or will be adopting in the next few years, will not be enough to create that balance in terms of the plastic production that we’re projecting by 2050.

MusicGathering Stasis by Blue Dot Sessions

Bonnie
And companies are struggling to keep up with these commitments, particularly in Asia where waste collection is fragmented.

Marcy
According to a recent Ellen Macarthur Foundation update on its own plastic “Global Commitment” charter, there has been quote “limited progress on increasing recyclability of plastic packaging and on reducing the need for single use packaging altogether”.

Miko
The Philippines has 7641 Islands, and about 2000 of them are inhabited. And we’re in a way in a good company, I guess. We also have Indonesia with more than 17,000 Islands and 6000 of them have people. And I can’t imagine the difficulty in terms of managing or setting up a logistical collection system to accommodate these inhabited islands, just to ensure that they say efficient handling of waste.

Marcy
And if you remember, Helen’s Lembeh village had no choice but to ship their waste by boat for sorting and recycling elsewhere.

Miko
You need to actually spend a lot of money for shipping costs just to send, for example, plastic discards to urban centres. In some cases, where in islands, they don’t have facilities to process, so they’re in a way forced to either send them to urban centres or just put them in landfills.

MusicQuarry Clouds by Blue Dot Sessions

Bonnie
Recycling in urban centers according to Miko does seem to be somewhat a brighter picture.

Miko
Maybe reaching the 50% recycling rate could be doable in big cities, which have access to recycling markets, and they do have some decent logistical system. In Metro Manila, for example, cities here, they enjoy regular collection services.

Bonnie
Some of the largest companies listed in Break Free from Plastic’s brand audit are investing heavily to increase recycling rates in these urban centers, especially in the area of PET plastic. That’s the number 1 in the triangle on plastic packaging, and it’s the material most commonly for water bottles here in Asia.

Marcy
We were curious why multinationals choose to invest so much in PET plastic recycling? I mean, why not switch to glass or aluminum packaging and focus on recycling those materials instead?

Ashwin
The PET bottle remains the packaging of choice for transporting and for being able to provide beverages for a wide number of products ranging from bottled water to soft carbonated drinks, and also increasingly for even dishwashing liquids and other consumer products.

Bonnie
Marcy spoke with Ashwin Subramaniam from his home in Singapore.

Ashwin Subramaniam
So, PET as a material has been around for decades now. But it’s really in the last 20 years or so that the recyclability of PET has started increasing. And in the last, I would say three or four years, the technologies for putting PET bottles back into bottles has actually commercialised at a very large scale. So there’s many companies out there who are mainly putting PET bottles back into PET bottles, which is excellent from a circular economy point of view. Many of the companies have really put in targets, to not only increase the collection for recycling rates, but to also create a very strong secondary market for these products by making commitments to use recycled content.

MusicQuarry Clouds by Blue Dot Sessions

Marcy
A few years ago, Ashwin founded an economics and environmental research company called GA Circular. Coca-Cola Company approached them to lead a study on how to increase PET plastic recycling in Asia.

Ashwin
So the full circle is a report where we specifically looked at the potential for circular economy or better recycling rates, and better collection rates for PET bottles in Southeast Asia. So one of the key findings was the collection for recycling rates in Southeast Asia, we found it to be at about 54% across nine different cities in Southeast Asia. Now I know this is not optimal, and this is nowhere close to the 80 or 90% rates that we see in many European countries or or in Japan. However, from a plastic recycling point of view, PET has by far the highest recycling rate.

Marcy
Companies like Coca-Cola are making big investments in the PET recycling systems in Asia. Swire Coca-Cola is building a plastic recycling facility here in Hong Kong. And their global commitment to make PET bottles with 50% recycled content is critical to creating demand for recycled plastic. But with fluctuating oil prices, it’s tough for recycled plastic to compete with virgin plastic prices.

Ashwin
There is a lot of value loss that we see, A because these, you know, there’s still a lot of bottles that are not getting collected, but B also because there is the end products that are made from PET is not exactly able to attract the best value in the market because of design issues because of contamination issues, and because they are being converted to low value products.

Marcy
And that gets us back to the waste collection struggles for many urban centres in Asia.
Because there isn’t separation of organic waste, so the plastic recycling bins here end up looking pretty dirty.

Bonnie
And contamination is one of the reasons why PET plastic is often “downcycled” into things like asphalt or polyester rather than back into food grade packaging like into PET bottles.

Marcy
So in an attempt to try to reach that goal of 50% recycled plastic content in the PET packaging, Ashwin suggested that…

Ashwin
…the industry would set up a producer responsibility organisation or a PRO which works on these extended producer responsibility EPR principles and ensures that these materials get collected and the PRO functions as a central point of contact for the entire industry to then work with recyclers and to do this collection at scale and by financing these receptors at scale.

Marcy
So Ashwin used a lot of industry terminology that we should break down. EPR is extended producer responsibility, that’s the polluter pays concept we talked about earlier. And PRO is the producer responsibility organizations that Ashwin is helping set up across Southeast Asia to coordinate packaging design standards and plastic recycling efforts.

Bonnie
These initiatives can help increase PET and hopefully other plastic recycling rates in urban centers, and hopefully other recycling as well. But, ultimately, who will pay to collect and sort the plastic waste for recycling?

MusicQuarry Clouds by Blue Dot Sessions

Miko
The government are already spending a lot of money in terms of solid waste management, services or activities. In some areas, I think they they spend as much as 20% of their annual budgets. So, it’s actually a burden for not only for the government, but also for households for residents, because it’s their, it’s their taxes.

Marcy
If local governments in Asia are required to shoulder the burden of collecting and sorting plastic waste, then what happened to the idea that the polluter pays?

Von Hernandez
The way we’re seeing it at the moment, companies like Nestle, Coke, they will tell you that you know, they’re doing something about the problem. I have to ask them and challenge them to reveal how much disposable plastics you’re putting up to market through commerce or, and how much ending up in the environment and challenge them to also reduce this amount of pollution in the form of disposable plastic that they’re deploying to the marketplace. And this principles in a way should be encapsulated in any extended producer responsibility framework.

Marcy
So Von wants to include objectives to reduce as well as recycle in any EPR program.

Ashwin
I think to come to the question of, you know, can EPR really help these issues? Yes, I would say EPR has a very important role to play. At the same time, EPRs are extended producer responsibility, regulations are not necessarily the silver bullet, right, they’re not going to solve the entire problem altogether.

Marcy
But many countries in Asia haven’t yet quite gotten to EPR legislation for plastic packaging.

Miko
Well, you have some pending bills in the Philippine Congress. So there are bills that actually focus on having a national ban on single-use plastic, there is a pending legislation on having an EPR scheme, for example, that would, in a way, mandate companies to take back materials. It should be in place, I think 20 years ago, but I think the government is just acting now to have it in place.

MusicQuarry Clouds by Blue Dot Sessions

Ashwin
So I think EPR definitely has a role to play. But I think at the end of the day, I, from my experience, I think it comes down to what is the value that the post consumer product has. So if these products have good value, and if the economics of collection work out, then I don’t think we should be seeing such a big challenge for plastic pollution.

Marcy
The scrap value for plastic packaging waste is not very high in Asia in part because virgin plastics are so cheap here.

Ashwin
And that’s where I feel currently, the plastic packaging is not necessarily reflecting the true environmental costs that they actually bear in these countries. So I think there is more and more of that realisation that the external, the external impact of plastic packaging has to be factored in, and there’s no running away from it. And this I don’t think this will ever be a sustainable model. You can’t expect to pay for a few years and then hope that Oh, no, I don’t need to, like I as a company don’t have to pay for plastic collection and recycling again in the future. No, I feel from now onwards, they always have to pay to ensure that the packaging gets collected, there’s always going to be an extra cost into their business.

Von
So when we talk about how we move our societies away from the system, and towards let’s say, greater circularity, we need to think of measures that will not perpetrate our reliance on plastics included and really leap-frog, looking at other approaches. Because the approach is not necessarily an alternative material, it could be an alternative system or way of thinking alternative way to deliver products to market. Many years ago, I mean, the reusable refillable share of the market in our societies quite considerable. In fact, they still exist in some places, even here in the Philippines as a deposit return schemes, but they’ve been slowly inundated by disposable systems. I think, in the United States, and in many places, in the north, we’ve already seen disposables taking over the market, right? We don’t want this replicated in full in Asia, we don’t. We have to learn from the mistakes of the West and be proud over those mistakes, implement alternative systems and solutions.

Bonnie
In our next episode, we will look into this idea of “refillable options” and “reuse” as an alternative to recycling.

Marcy
We will hear inspirational stories of people across Asia trying to create and promote zero waste communities, where reuse and reduction become a core value of their society.

Bonnie
Because recycling in the rural areas of the Asian archipelagos is more and more becoming a myth rather than a solution.

Music – Sustainable Asia theme by Alexander Mauboussin

Marcy
Thank you to our partner the Heinrich Boell Foundation for allowing us to use their formidable research behind their new publication Plastic Atlas Asia. Heinrich Boll Foundation is a green think tank from Germany and has more than 30 offices around the world including Hong Kong. They produce a series of excellent publications including “Ocean Atlas” and “Agriculture Atlas”, and their recent publication “Insect Atlas 2020”. Also thanks to the support for this series from Break Free From Plastic Asia Pacific. Break Free From Plastic is a global movement of 11,000 organisations and individuals worldwide, including Sustainable Asia! And as you can guess from the name, they share a vision of a future that’s free from plastic pollution.

My name is Marcy Trent Long. Our Co-host, Producer and Sound Engineer is Bonnie Au. Jiaxing Li is the Associate Producer. A big thank you to our guests, Helen Panangung, Von Hernandez, Miko Alino, and Ashwin Subramaniam. Alexander Mauboussin created the intro/outro music, made from repurposed and recovered waste items.