Sustainable packaging: towards a circular economy in the Asian market
Sustainable packaging: towards a circular economy in the Asian market
by Tej Fernandez (exclusively for K-MAG)
Asia: Food packaging takes to sustainability
The concept of packaging has expanded over time, from its primal purpose of protecting the product and ensuring it is in top shape during transit from the source to the consumer, to guaranteeing that the product is contaminant-free when it reaches the shelves and the end-user. Moreover, packaging innovation has shifted focus from mainly the product to both the product and the packaging. Packaging has to be safe, durable, visually appealing and environmental friendly.
However, in recent years, plastic packaging has been vilified due to its purported contribution to waste pollution and carbon emissions. The World Wide Fund (WWF) Plastic Packaging in Southeast Asia and China report states that packaging accounts for half of plastic waste and an estimated third of which leaks into the environment, while merely 14% is recycled and 2% achieve circularity or is recycled into “similar products”.
Meanwhile, a 2019 report by the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, suggests that petroleum-based plastic lifecycle accounts for a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). The methods of disposing common plastics, either by landfilling, incinerating, or recycling, have leave behind huge carbon footprints.
Thus, the food packaging sector in Asia is stacking up to growing market demand for sustainable solutions and to achieve the global carbon neutral goals.
More food consumption, more packaging waste
The rising urbanisation, disposable incomes, and population are driving packaging growth in Asia. For the five ASEAN countries alone, namely, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Philippines, household consumption of plastic food packaging totalled nearly 1.9 million tonnes, and 2.05 million tonnes of PET bottles in 2016, according to the WWF 2020 report.
Indonesia and Thailand are widely using single-use packaging, having the largest markets for flexible plastic packaging, including, sachets, pouch, bags and films, on account of rising demand in the food and beverage sectors. All this leads to a mounting waste pile.
Even with the pandemic last year, Bangkok was reported to have generated 3,440 tonnes/day of plastic waste from a total of 9,370 tonnes/day of waste accumulated in April alone, which is higher than 2019 or an increase of 62%. Thus, with Covid-19 and lockdown policies, consumers resorted to more online shopping and food deliveries, leading to more waste.
The environmental and economic burden of this pollution to the tourism, fishing and maritime industries costs US$1.3 billion a year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It has found that existing municipal management waste infrastructure is inadequate to handle the amount of household waste, as well as recycle and recover materials from this waste. Therefore, a significant amount of the plastic packaging waste is landfilled, consequently entering the environment.
Consumers driving sustainable packaging growth
With a positive growth trajectory, sustainable or green packaging holds a billion dollar future. Research group Imarc has forecast the green packaging market to exceed US$232 billion in 2020.
Now, manufacturers are developing strategies to capture this growing market preference for sustainable packaging with more recyclable or compostable plastic materials.
This is reflected in a 2020 survey co-commissioned by the SEA circular, an initiative of UNEP and the Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia (COBSEA), and Food Industry Asia (FIA) on 2,000 consumers and 400 food and beverage businesses in five Southeast Asian countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam). It recommended that governments, businesses and consumers step up efforts after noting lapses between awareness and action.
The survey indicated that 91% of consumers are averse to plastic waste, yet only less than half had reservations on buying products from non-recycled materials. Meanwhile, 82% of businesses expressed dire concerns about plastic waste. Yet again, less than half conveyed their inadequacy to address the issue. The study also found that 51% of the polled businesses in the five countries are not engaged in collaborative platforms that tackle plastic waste issues. Moreover, both consumers and businesses were expecting more government action, specifically in the areas of waste management and littering.
Now, consumer-centric organisations are taking a stand against packaging types that make up a bulk of environment litter. For example, the single-use, disposable plastic packaging, which peddles convenience, is also a consistent material in the waste stream.
In the Philippines, the popularity of portion packaging proliferated single-use plastic litter. Break Free From Plastic organisation noted that an astounding 91% of the total plastic collected were non-recyclables such as sachets, which have no economic value for waste pickers.
The group is calling for elimination of plastics and is proposing replacing plastic packaging with similar disposable packaging formats like bioplastics and paper.
In Vietnam, similar claims against certain FMCG producers have been cited based on a recent brand audit (from 2018-2020) by the Vietnam Zero Waste Alliance. The latter has recommended a ban on single-use plastics, higher taxes for plastic production, waste diversion, setting up of waste reduction targets, and more.
Of the Vietnamese establishments studied for the report, schools were found to generate the highest share of residual wastes in their waste streams (20%) that comprised mostly of plastic bags, PET bottles, Styrofoam take-out boxes, single-layer food packaging, and multi-layer food packaging.
With all that waste, poor recycling rates account for a significant volume of unrecovered valuable materials, according to the World Bank that has found that in Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, due to the low recycling, more than 75% of the material value of plastics is lost, costing an estimated US$6 billion/year.
Bioplastics: a renewable solution to secure material supply
One of the strategies being employed to counter growing plastic waste is the use of bioplastics. The Asian region accounts for over 50% of bioplastic production, and Thailand aims to lead in this niche market that is pegged to cross US$3 trillion by end of 2021, growing at a CAGR of 16% to 2026, according to a market forecast by Mordor Intelligence.
Thailand is befitting as the region’s polestar for bioplastics considering its robust agricultural resources. The country is a major exporter of cassava and rice; and an abundant source of sugarcane and cellulose – all of which are raw materials for bioplastics.
According to the Thailand Board of Investment (BOI), in recent years, it has approved nearly 15 bioplastics projects worth a total of US$500 million in investment value. One of these is the world's second largest PLA (Poly Lactic Acid) plant (with a production capacity of 75,000 tonnes/year of PLA) set up in the country by Total Corbion PLA (Thailand) Ltd, a 50:50 joint venture between French energy group Total and Netherlands-based biochemicals company Corbion.
PTT MCC Biochem, a joint venture between Thailand's PTT Global Chemical and Japan's Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation, is also manufacturing BioPBS, a bio-based material with cradle-to-cradle biopolymer ingredients.
Indonesia is also hustling into the global bioplastics market with biomass-based plastics made from cassava, seaweed and palm oil. Homegrown company Avani Eco, founded in 2014, has created a plastic alternative, made from cassava starch, which is said to be comparable to that of normal plastic. When used for plastic bags, it can dissolve in water without causing any harm, claims the firm.
Seaweed, which does not take up land space, is another alternative material for bioplastics production and Indonesian start-up, Evoware, has produced plastic containers made from farmed seaweed.
Elsewhere, Malaysia is tapping its 4.7 million hectares palm assets for bioplastics. It is home to a fully-automated bioplastic pilot plant, equipped with bioreactors, built by government-owned research technology company SIRIM, together with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). Here, palm oil mill effluent (POME) and crude palm kernel oil are converted into polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) materials.
Not all countries support bioplastics/biodegradables
Meanwhile, Singapore rocked the bioplastic boat when its officials were cited to have said that biodegradable plastic options take more resources to produce, which make them more expensive.
Last year, Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources, said that a life-cycle assessment of single-use carrier bags and disposables by the National Environment Agency (NEA) found that substituting plastics with other types of single-use packaging materials is “not necessarily better for the environment”.
This was backed up by Associate Professor Tong Yen Wah from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the National University of Singapore (NUS) who said that biodegradable plastic wastes make a difference to the environment only when they are buried in landfills.
“In these situations, these plastic bags can degrade faster as compared to a regular polyethylene plastic bag and will not affect the environment as much. Overall for Singapore, it might even be more expensive to incinerate biodegradable plastics,” said Assoc Prof Tong. He explained that this is because some biodegradable options take more resources to produce, which make them more expensive.
Even so, Singapore-based biotech company RWDC Industries is bent on tackling the single-use plastics market segment. The company makes a sustainable material solution that can be used as a substitute for plastic across a wide array of products, including straws and fast-food containers. It uses renewable sources like used cooking oil for its feedstock, and its PHA material is entirely biodegradable.