Efforts to promote plastics circularity can span the entirety of the value chain, encompassing several stages.Efforts to promote plastics circularity can span the entirety of the value chain, encompassing several stages.

WHEN the first synthetic polymer, celluloid, was invented in 1869, it was envisioned as a more nature-friendly substitute for ivory and tortoiseshell – both materials sourced from hunting of wild animals.

Indeed, plastics have become one of mankind’s most ubiquitous and flexible materials, opening up revolutionary possibilities in manufacturing.

However, more than a century and a half on, plastic pollution is now a prominent environmental challenge.

We regularly dispose of large volumes of plastics which can remain in our environment for centuries, with plastic bottles alone taking up to 450 years to decompose in a landfill.

Plastics that are not properly disposed of also sadly often end up in oceans, posing a threat to marine environments.

In fact, plastic waste makes up 80% of all marine pollution, with as much as 10 million tonnes ending up in the ocean each year.

There is also a growing concern about chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) leaking into ecosystems and human food sources.

Plastics are undoubtedly a critical part of modern life. Yet with plastic production expected to double to 700 million metric tonnes globally by 2040, managing its use and mitigating its impacts is vital in Malaysia and around the world.

Malaysia’s plastic predicament

Malaysia is no stranger to plastics – it is a major industrial player, consumer and recycler of plastics.

More than one million tonnes of plastic waste is generated in Malaysia annually, according to a 2021 estimate by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), yet overall recycling rates are just 33% – stubbornly below the 40% targeted nationally by 2025.

What’s more, Malaysia’s extensive coastline and high rainfall rates make it extremely susceptible to marine pollution.

A 2023 academic paper supported by nonprofit organisation The Ocean Cleanup, ranked Malaysia as the third-largest contributor to plastic waste in the oceans.

Malaysia’s plastic pollution problem is not just an environmental challenge, but also a missed opportunity for economic value creation.

The World Bank estimated in a 2021 report that 81% of the material value of key plastic resins in Malaysia is lost due to plastics being discarded rather than recycled. This equates to approximately USD1.1bil lost value annually.

Improving recycling rates will help recover these valuable resins and also boost a plastics recycling industry which was valued at a sizeable RM4.5bil as of 2019, according to the Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association (MPMA).

Numerous efforts are already underway to tackle Malaysia’s plastic pollution challenge.

The Ministry of Natural Resources (NRES) has developed the comprehensive Malaysia Plastics Sustainability Roadmap 2021-2030, which sets targets for eliminating single-use plastics and achieving a plastic packaging recycling rate of 25% by 2025.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian government has announced a total ban on plastic bags by 2025.

Furthermore, Malaysia is piloting a voluntary extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme for packaging, advocating for producers to take responsibility for end-of-life collection and recycling of consumer packaging waste.

Technology is also playing a role, with PETRONAS aiming to construct Asia’s largest advanced chemical recycling plant in Johor, which targets a capacity of 33 kilotonnes per anum by 2026.

Chemical recycling is critical, as it involves breaking down plastics into their base chemical forms, a process that helps recycle certain types of hard-to-recycle plastics.

There are challenges in embedding enhanced plastics circularity which must be acknowledged.

Recycled plastics are typically more expensive, costing at least 10% to 20% more than virgin plastics, which can hinder adoption.

There is also poor awareness among manufacturers and consumers, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), on circularity and alternatives to virgin plastics.

While investors may be interested in funding plastic recycling, this interest may come with the condition of importing waste for feedstock. This can pose the risk of foreign plastic waste being dumped in the country.

The ubiquitous nature of plastics is also part of the challenge. These materials enable us to consume more cheaply and conveniently – being widely utilised in fast-fashion, e-commerce and manufacturing components – and so it takes a concerted effort to rethink our reliance on them.

Complex challenge, comprehensive solution

As the plastics challenge is multifaceted, so too are the solutions required. They will necessitate holistic, cross-stakeholder collaboration.

Driving a circular economy in plastics goes beyond recycling. Initiatives to advance plastics circularity can be implemented across different stages of the value chain – design, produce, distribute, use, collect and sort, and recycle or new input.

There are many global examples of efforts to address this value chain which Malaysia can learn from.

At a national level, moving towards a mandatory EPR scheme for plastics to raise domestic recycling rates and providing feedstock for recycling without imports is key. Vietnam, for example, implemented mandatory EPR in 2021.

Minimum recycling content requirements could also be implemented for selected products.

In 2023, the EU introduced legislation that all PET bottles must incorporate a minimum 2% recycled content by 2025.

Introducing similar requirements in Malaysia can not only generate demand for recycled inputs to catalyse a circular economy, but will also ensure manufacturers remain competitive in export markets which have similar restrictions.

Industry stakeholders could invest in and explore new technologies such as advanced chemical recycling, as well as bioplastics made with sustainable biomass or with biodegradable characteristics.

The UK, for example, committed 3.2 million pounds (RM19,058,470) to innovations in plastic packaging such as plant-based biodegradable polymers in a major 2023 funding announcement.

Doing our part at home

Individual Malaysians also have a role to play.

We can actively sort plastic waste for recycling to improve recycling efficiency. We can consider alternatives to single-use plastics such as reusable cups and bags. We can also choose to support businesses that are actively addressing plastic sustainability issues, either through eco-design processes, sustainable packaging use or the use of recycled inputs.

Everyone can contribute to the effort to ensure that plastics can continue to serve the needs of society without damaging our planet.

This would be a more sustainable solution – returning to the original intention that plastics would reduce harm to nature, not amplify it.

As we look to Earth Day this year, we can challenge ourselves to transition from “plastics versus the planet” to an approach exemplified by “plastics for the planet”.

The possibility is there, all it takes is the willpower, the creativity, and the collaboration and commitment to advance circularity in plastics for Malaysia.

Article by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Malaysia head Nurlin Mohd Salleh, BCG managing director and partner Arun Rajamani, and principal Kar Min Lim.

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