Plastics producers gear up for shift to circular economy

In order to achieve a circular economy, Malaysia must first put in place efficient recycling and waste management practices. (Bernama pic)

KUALA LUMPUR: Local waste management experts are confident Malaysia can shift to a circular economy where reduction, reuse and recycling of resources prevail for the benefit of the environment.

At least one trade organisation, the Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association (MPMA), is already taking the necessary steps in that direction.

The term “circular economy” is defined as an idea for a truly sustainable future that works without waste and is in symbiosis with the environment and its resources.

It is a future where every product is designed for multiple cycles of use, and different materials or manufacturing cycles are carefully aligned so that the output of one process always feeds the input of another.

Rather than producing emissions, by-products or damaged and unwanted goods as waste during the manufacturing process, in the circular economy this waste become the raw materials or “nutrients” for new production cycles.

A circular or regenerative economy can also be loosely described as maximising the use of resources or materials by channelling waste back into the production cycle to be used as a raw material source, thus closing the loop of product manufacturing and waste management.

Waste management expert and senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Perlis (Unimap) Irnis Azura Zakarya said Malaysia would be able to practise a circular economy if the relevant ministry gave its full support to the idea.

However, she said, in order to achieve a circular economy, the country must first put in place efficient recycling and waste management practices.

“It is important to identify recyclable resources and materials that can be reused and returned to the economic cycle.

“This means we have to now reconsider materials that are usually regarded as waste and view them as valuable resources or secondary raw materials.

“And, to enable industries to make full use of such secondary raw materials, any obstacles that stand in their way should be eliminated,” Irnis Azura, who is also director of Unimap’s occupational safety and health unit, told Bernama.

Work harder to educate the public

She said solid waste management company SWCorp Malaysia, which comes under the purview of the housing and local government ministry, also played an important role in advocating and practising sound waste management techniques.

“It also needs to work harder to educate (the public) to apply good waste management practices,” she added.

To propel the nation towards achieving a circular economy, Irnis Azura suggested that all organisations, including business establishments, schools, universities and government departments, set up “green squads” to implement strategies related to safeguarding the environment.

The green squad’s responsibilities will include designing strategic waste management measures, as well as monitoring and reporting on their organisation’s environmental performance.

The team should also be tasked with computing the organisation’s waste production and taking the necessary steps to reduce the levels of waste generated.

“Computing the waste output will enable the team to get information on the composition of the waste products and help them to single out wasteful practices and make decisions on specific action to be taken to deal with the waste components,” she said.

Explaining how waste generation can be reduced, Irnis Azura said organisations could reduce the use of resources by buying materials that produce less waste, especially hazardous substances.

Prudence in the purchase of chemical products, pharmaceuticals and other supplies, as well as waste separation at source, would also help to reduce the quantity of hazardous waste generated, she added.

MPMA takes action

Meanwhile, MPMA has already taken the big step to bring together all the stakeholders along the plastics supply chain to work towards the common goal of achieving a circular economy within the industry.

“While plastic products serve a functional purpose that has helped consumers in many ways, it is essential to note that any material, including plastic products, can pose a problem to the environment if it is discarded indiscriminately,” its president, Lim Kok Boon, said at the closing ceremony of the MPMA-ExxonMobil Eco-Park Innovation Challenge Camp that was recently held at iPlay Park in Damansara Damai, Selangor.

In a separate email interview with Bernama, MPMA environment executive Crystal Cheah said the association formed a sustainability sub-committee in November last year to work together with all stakeholders in the plastics industry to achieve a circular economy, as well as to encourage the public to practise recycling.

The sub-committee is now working on a proposal to develop a pilot project that will focus on the collection and recycling of plastic bottles.

According to Cheah, the biggest challenge they face is getting everyone to agree and commit to efforts and projects that will lead to a circular economy.

She said there were many factors for them to consider such as the type of business models that support the initiative, pinpointing each stakeholder’s role and responsibilities and identifying the best mechanism to execute this initiative.

“The circular economy is something new to us, thus we are doing our best to work this out for the benefit of everyone,” she added.

The EC way towards achieving circular economy

In 2014, the European Commission (EC) adopted a zero-waste programme for countries in the region to establish a common and coherent European Union framework to promote the circular economy.

In January this year, the EC adopted a new set of measures in its effort to implement the ambitious Circular Economy Action Plan.

According to its official website, the proposed measures will contribute to “closing the loop” of product life cycles through greater recycling and reuse, and bring benefits to both the environment and the economy.

The action plan will extract maximum value and use from all raw materials, products and waste, as well as foster energy savings and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It will also help European businesses and consumers to make the transition to a strong circular economy.