Changing how we think about waste as well as the actions needed to tackle the problem were discussed in a session on “Advancing the Circular Economy through Resource Recovery Management” at the Chamber on 9 September.
Leiliang Zheng (below), Associate, Advanced Material, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, looked at the vision and reality for the circular economy. Economic activity has historically proceeded in a linear fashion, she said, but to deal with the waste that the modern world now produces, we must change this to a circular economy.
“We need to connect the end point to the start point,” she said. “However, this is much harder to put into practice than it is to say it.”
Moving to a circular economy will require substantial changes from consumers, governments and businesses. The good news is that many global companies have pledged to change their approach, including Coke and Proctor & Gamble, as well as some in the auto and materials world. And governments around the world, including the E.U. and China, have enacted recycling legislation.
Despite these moves, most waste from around the world is still discarded. Yet in Japan, only 17% of waste goes to landfill, far below the global average.
Recycling is only part of the solution, Zheng added, and we must also review what products are made from in the first place.
“Sustainable materials can also play a very important role,” she said. “If we can control what material we put into the economic cycle it will have major benefits.”
For example, bioplastics have lower CO2 emissions than regular plastics, and have a comparable cost.
“The circular economy is more of an opportunity than a cost. We need to work in a more positive way,” she said.
Roland Thompson, Head of Asset Management and Operations at Green Power Investment Group, remarked that in the natural environment, there is no waste. He made use of a plastic water bottle as a prop, explaining that this plastic was once oil, and the bottle still contains that oil – which is wasted if it is thrown away.
“In these materials there are a significant amount of valuable resources that we are not extracting.”
He said we should stop using the word “waste” and instead refer to “resource.” But to make resource recovery feasible requires appropriate systems to be put in place, and the cost and scale of doing this is a challenge.
“We need to see this as a business opportunity, and we need to create entrepreneurs in this space,” he said.
As Zheng had noted earlier, despite being a developed economy with a large population, Japan has cut the amount of waste it sends to landfill. Gen Takahashi, General Manager, Business Development, JFE Engineering Corporation, shared his insights into the country’s success.
JFE Engineering, part of the global JFE Group, builds and runs waste and recycling plants, among other things. In recent years the company has been able to use the latest innovative techniques to design waste-treatment plants with emission rates that are low enough that they can safely be located in urban areas. This also means that waste energy can be turned into power.
“There are many benefits to the waste-treatment plant that we can build within the city in Japan,” he said.
He said that moving towards better waste management requires good governance and clear policies, as well as commitment from private companies and citizens. In Yokohama, for example, there is a very thorough separation system into 15 different types of solid waste.
Replicating Japan’s success in other economies may be an uphill struggle. Takahashi explained some of the hurdles faced when trying to introduces such systems in Southeast Asia, such as a lack of policy enforcement. Barriers to private sector involvement include a lack of transparency around bid selection and constraints on land availability.
However, efforts are continuing. JFE is now working in Yangon, Myanmar to develop a small-scale plant that can act as a model project. The intention is to build knowledge among the local population to be able to scale up such projects in the future.
Nigel Mattravers, Director, ALBA Group Asia, explained that Alba develops projects around the region in integrated waste management, which brings together all aspects including collection, separation, recycling, treatment and disposal.
He said that for waste treatment programmes to be successful, governments cannot be expected to work alone. “We must bring together the government agencies and the private sector,” he said.
Mattravers noted that Hong Kong has already been successful with one aspect of its approach to waste, and that is in dealing with electronic waste. Alba and the Hong Kong Government cooperated to build and operate the WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) recycling plant, which opened last year. The WEEE plant processes goods like fridges, computers and air conditioners into reusable raw materials, disposes of any dangerous materials safely, and refurbishes items that are still useable. Hong Kong’s ability to enact and enforce policies to deal with its electronic waste means that it should be able to do so on a broader scale.
Key to the success of the e-waste programme is the concept of producer responsibility, and the backing of government, Mattravers said: “Legislation is very important.”
This event was part of a full-day conference at the Chamber, including sessions on the challenges of implementing waste management programmes in APEC’s developing economies, policies facilitating and accelerating private sector participation, and practical ways to turn ideas into actions. The event was hosted by HKGCC and co-organized by APEC Business Advisory Council Hong Kong, the Asia-Pacific Financial Forum, and the Asia-Pacific Infrastructure Partnership.