It is no secret that Asia has trouble with managing plastic waste. According to a 2015 report by the Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey, 60% of all plastic waste in the ocean comes from five Asian countries—China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand.
All around the world, scientists are developing innovative ways of dealing with plastic pollution, but there is a pressing need to address Asia’s challenges with a tailored approach by bringing together the right stakeholders and considering local contexts, according to Stephanie Arrowsmith, director of the Incubation Network (TIN).
TIN was founded in Singapore last year as a joint project by The Circulate Initiative and SecondMuse, a network-driven collaboration agency designed to tackle complex problems around the world. It generates, identifies, and scales waste management solutions in South and Southeast Asia. The organization recently completed its first virtual Circular Innovation Jam (CIJ), which attracted 400 applicants from five countries in an eight-day online sprint to source, support, and develop local solutions for recycling and waste management across India, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
More than half of CIJ’s applicants were women, and the program also had participants from rural and remote island communities, such as the Sumatran region of Aceh and island of Flores in Indonesia, and the “coffee land” of Chikmagalur in India. “This was crucial as they each brought invaluable perspectives and insights to the table,” Arrowsmith told KrASIA.
CIJ chose 25 startups from 400 applicants to join the program, selecting three as winners—Growing Plastic and Rebricks from Indonesia, as well as Evlogia Eco Care from India. They were chosen based on the creativity and inclusivity of their innovations, as well as the potential impact and scalability of their solutions.
“Take for example Rebricks, which converts disposable sachet packaging into robust paving materials. The sachets are made from laminated plastic and aluminum film, which are very hard to recycle, so turning them into building materials is definitely a great idea that needs to be scaled up. Rebricks already proved this solution through a number of projects. We help them connect with our partners and we hope this can boost their production quickly,” Arrowsmith said.
The pandemic’s plastic problem
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought on unprecedented demand for deliveries and takeout meals, leading to elevated levels of waste and pollution—a consequence overshadowed by public health and economic problems during the crisis.
“The pandemic has triggered our region’s biggest environmental challenge this year. It is hard to comment on the true extent of the plastic problem, but based on our conversations with stakeholders across the region, ocean plastic pollution in South and Southeast Asia seems to be at an all-time high, exacerbated by COVID-19 and increased single-use packaging,” Arrowsmith said.
Nevertheless, the pandemic brought greater awareness to the problem and has inspired entrepreneurs to build locally tailored solutions, Arrowsmith believes. “It is really encouraging to see how many have come together through programs like the Circular Innovation Jam to build back better.”
To become the catalyst for action that ends plastic pollution, TIN has other initiatives beside CIJ, such as the Plastic Data Challenge, which aims to support the development of data-driven solutions to reduce mismanaged plastic waste, facilitate transparency in waste management, and disseminate relevant research in the region.
Another program is the Ocean Plastic Prevention Accelerator, which supports Surabaya’s local innovators—including waste banks, SMEs, governments, and startups—to address the plastic waste problem in the Indonesian city.
For all of these programs, TIN is partnering with notable corporations such as Unilever, P&G, Coca-Cola, and more. “They may seem like unlikely allies and partners, but for a truly circular economy, we need corporates to be part of the solution so we can scale these ventures. Having them onboard provided meaningful technical support and mentorship during CIJ,” said Arrowsmith. The startups had an opportunity to gain insights from CIJ partners on the factors that makes businesses viable, marketing strategies, as well as the challenges and opportunities that exist in today’s supply chains.
Going forward, TIN will extend its support to CIJ’s three winners. It will also launch the second global challenge next year to support new circular innovations in South and Southeast Asia.