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Exclusive Interview with Alliance To End Plastic Waste

Ahead of this year's Sustainability in Packaging Asia 2024, we spoke with Nicholas Kolesch, Vice President at Alliance To End Plastic Waste, to get a sneak peek of what we can expect from his presentation on 'Infrastructure enabling better recycling rate in Asia' Here's what he had to say…

  1.  Your presentation at this year’s Sustainability in Packaging Asia will cover Infrastructure enabling better recycling rate in Asia (to be updated). Why is it important for others in the industry to hear this message? 
  • Plastics are ubiquitous in everyday life and have become an essential component in packaging, for example to prolong the shelf life of perishable food, reduce weight and improve performance in automotive applications, to enable the production and transmission of green energy, and to enable safe and effective medical care.  
  • However, plastic waste remains a serious challenge. Globally, 70 percent of all plastic waste is uncollected, resulting in improper disposal, such as dumping, uncontrolled landfilling or open burning. Furthermore, plastic recycling rates remain low in many markets. 
  • Circularity is often touted as the panacea for this. But to enable this, urgently needed are the improved segregated collection, sorting, and recycling of plastic waste. 
  • A functional circular economy for plastics requires the support of the entire plastics value chain, from plastic producers and converters, brands, waste management companies, and many others. 
  • Only collaborative effort between industry, governments, and civil society can prevent or mitigate, at scale, the environmental leakage of plastic, while capturing its value through recycling or other means of recovery.
  • The intent is to keep existing plastic materials in circulation and use for as long as possible. 
  1. What are the main challenges in your day-to-day work relating to sustainable packaging solutions? 
  • From a business perspective, it would be the cost of embedding sustainability and ensuring that an organisation’s circularity objectives are well aligned across all functions in an organisation. If a brand’s procurement department remains purely incentivised on achieving lowest cost, there will be a challenge to drive demand for recycled resins. 
  • Investments in sustainability are long-term efforts that often do not see instant bottom-line returns. It’s important that the end goal of increasing supply and quality of recycled materials is kept in mind, knowing that it will be a journey to fully achieve desired product properties. 
  • To holistically invest in sustainability is to change the nature of one’s business. It is a combination of encouraging people to prioritise actions that have an immediate impact while continuing to think, plan, and invest in the medium-to-long term. Despite sustainability being a key performance metric for almost every industry today, there remains a pressing need to advance more responsible and sustainable production across the entire value chain, right from the stage of design and procurement to the end-of-sale. 
  1. What are some of the biggest opportunities gaining attention within the packaging industry?  
  • Amid growing awareness over the environmental impact of plastic waste, the demand for packaging alternatives that are convenient, safe, and sustainable has become increasingly appealing. 
  • Sustainability should be considered an investment in the longevity of a business. Businesses should consider their wider operating conditions to ensure that their activities have the lowest possible impact on current and future generations, with a particular focus on climate change and biodiversity loss. One starting point is to collaborate more closely with suppliers and customers in a way that introduces more circularity into the business. The goal is to develop products with their end-of-life management in mind, maximising recyclability of the product. 
  • But systems change requires a high amount of collaboration and stakeholder alignment, which can sometimes result in slower adoption than everyone would like. This, however, is an opportunity to implement new ways of working and evolve existing business models. For example, companies starting to implement “design for circularity” principles are disruptors that are not just pulling their plastic value chain partners in the direction of circularity but also clearly differentiating themselves by providing customers with better value propositions compared to their competitors. 
  1. What do you think will be some of the most interesting advancements in packaging circularity in the near future? 
  • Advanced sorting technologies, such as AI enabled high speed optical sorting, and digitalisation use cases that enable improved recovery rates of specific SKUs such as digital watermarking will be key. Tracking and tracing along the value chain can also help maximise recycling rates and drive circularity in an economically viable and environmentally sustainable manner. Brands will increasingly want to know the provenance of the recycled materials they are sourcing and that is possible with emerging digital and blockchain technologies.
  • For example, AI object-recognition technology can be deployed to achieve advanced post-consumer waste sorting that allows for cleaner, more homogenous recycling streams that enable the production of high-quality recyclates. 
  • Digital watermarking is another exciting development the Alliance is supporting.
  • The HolyGrail 2.0 project, driven by AIM – European Brands Association and powered by the Alliance, is a pilot project assessing the technical and economic viability of digital watermarks in increasing plastic packaging recycling rates, with participation across the value chain.  
  • Digital watermarks are postage stamp-sized marks invisible to the naked eye that are printed all over plastic packaging. These watermarks carry information relevant to recyclers on the types of plastics in a single unit of packaging, equipping recyclers with a faster and more accurate sorting process, therefore helping brand and packaging players meet their recycling targets. 
  1. What are the challenges the packaging industry have to overcome in the next few years?   
  • Moving from a take-make-dispose mindset and evolving into a circular economy model that encourages and enables Reduce-Reuse-Recycle is crucial in tackling the plastic waste challenge. 
  • Recycling is the cornerstone of building a circular economy, when combined with reuse and refill. The challenge with finding alternatives to plastic is that these need to be properly researched and trialled to ensure they do not incur a higher cost, inferior performance, or higher carbon footprint. Alternatives to plastic should be assessed in each specific use case ensuring we are not increasing harm with an alternative. 
  • Paper straws are one example; they are heavier to transport than plastic, resulting in greater emissions and degrade faster upon application, sometimes resulting in more than one paper straw being required for a single-use instance.  
  • Further investment, innovation, and collaboration is needed to develop and implement viable, low-carbon business models for reuse, refill, and recycling.