Transcript: Why Asia is Key to the Future of Circular Economy
SEE THE SHOW NOTES AND LISTEN AT: Why Asia is Key to the Future of Circular Economy
Katie Whalen [00:00:00] Getting in the Loop episode five, Why Asia is Key to the Future of Circular Economy with Adrianna Zsakay.
Katie Whalen [00:00:12] Hi, I'm Katie Whalen and join me each week I talk with experts around the globe about Circular Economy. You'll find out what's being done to make it a reality and if it can really solve the problems it promises.
[00:00:24] It's time for Getting in the Loop.
[00:00:32] Welcome back to another new episode of Getting in the Loop. Today we are talking to Adrianna Zsakay, who is the Executive Director of Circular Economy Asia. Circular Economy Asia implements circular economy programs and projects in the Asian region. Specifically, they focus on 24 different countries. In this episode, Adriana shares about her lessons and experiences from working in these countries. We also hear about the resources that her team is currently developing and why we need to start paying attention to Asia. If we want to move to a more circular economy.
Adrianna Zsakay [00:01:08] Hi, I'm Adrianna Zsakay and I'm founder of Circular Economy Asia, so I'm based in Malaysia and we cover 24 countries in Asia for the implementation of circular economy projects and programs.
Katie Whalen [00:01:23] Brilliant. That is a lot of countries.
Adrianna Zsakay [00:01:26] Yeah, it is. But when I started out, you really need to define Asia. So you are we defined Asia as from Pakistan to Japan and from Mongolia to Timor. Otherwise, there are many different definitions of Asia. So we had to define it within the context of something that was feasible. And just to let you know, there are two hundred and forty nine countries in the world. The twenty four countries that we cover, which is just under 10 percent, has more than 50 percent of the world's population. Crazy. Yeah, it is crazy. And to make it even crazier, by 2050, the Asian Development Bank have forecast that seven countries out of two hundred and forty nine will have forty five percent of global GDP.
[00:02:19] And those seven countries are Asian countries. They are China, India, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.
Katie Whalen [00:02:31] Wow. So I think there is some importance for discussing Circular economy in a series.
[00:02:39] That is unless we're including Asia in the development of the Circular economy. It won't happen. Sustainability and the circular economy and even forgetting the circular economy. But the world's. Ability to achieve any sense of sustainability will reside in Asia.
Katie Whalen [00:03:00] Yes. Was that part of the reason for you started Circular economy Asia to begin with? Can you share a little bit about why you started it? Oh, okay.
Adrianna Zsakay [00:03:11] So erect shopping, working in the food industry for quite some time. I lived in South Korea and ran a food of food import company in South Korea. I was quite happy in the food industry. I moved South Korea to Thailand. South Korea has a very sophisticated waste management system like Japan. And when I moved to Thailand, a little bit dysfunctional waste management system. If you've been to Thailand and I was building the world's largest database of Asian food regulations and it was a little boring. I mean, I love the job, but it was a little boring, I have to say. So I was looking for a hobby and stamp collecting really wasn't exciting enough.
[00:03:53] So I thought if I was, the question I asked myself was if I was to redesign recyclable resource recovery. I mean, this is ten years ago and I was just hearing in the echoes of the world about how some companies were looking to reprocess waste, particularly waste. So there was some Japanese companies that had set up in Thailand to look at extrapolating the E waste out of the waste string for the critical raw materials in the gold and the silver and other valuable metals. So having a sense of that, even though it was tiny, tiny, tiny, not like it is now, my thought if I was to think about a design, what would that look like? And if that's in the Senate, look as a hobby. But it got a little weird. I used the word weed as opposed to obsessional and and so I thought if you could create a design and I've lived in Asia for many years, if you could create a design that worked in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, very different countries politically, economically sense of development. But if that if you could design a system that could work across those three countries, you could work for the rest of Asia. So I I hung out with informal collectors, I understood the whole system of informal collectors who collect in the neighborhood. Sell it to their neighborhood depot collection depot, who then sell it to a middleman who won't sell it to another middleman, who won't sell it to another. So I began to understand the whole economics of the system. So coming to the Circular economy three years ago, approximately three years ago, perhaps a little bit more. Somebody introduced me to the circular economy. To coin a cliche, it was love at first sight. And that's when I decided to transition from food regulations to the circular economy. And I realized that all this work that I had been doing in waste management, in the design of a recyclable resource recovery system actually had value and I could use it within the circular economy. So that's that's how it all started.
Katie Whalen [00:06:15] And I'm curious, what kinds of differences do you see in how these countries are interpreting and also being being involved and adapting to this idea of circular economy?
Adrianna Zsakay [00:06:27] All right. Well, the biggest hurdle, I think, is that as in most countries and with most people, there's a perception that there circular economy is really bad glorified recycling. So that's that's a hurdle. Getting people engaged in circular design and circular business models is quite challenging. Here in Asia, it's seen as a cost. So many companies and countries in Asia are still coming to terms with the concept of sustainability. Now we're presenting them with this whole new paradigm that says, oh, now you have to embrace the circular economy. And they're going, whoa, you know, we're just getting a handle on sustainability. Even though it's 2019 and I hearken back to CSR where when CSR became very fashionable, you know, 15, 20 years ago, it was seen as a cost and it was seen as old and it was seen as perhaps volunteering and philanthropy for many companies. And so that has unfortunately still being moved into the sustainability arena. And even though things are slowly starting to change now, particularly in Singapore, which will have mandatory reporting, a range of across a range of different criteria, it's still not there for many countries. So the issue for us for implementation of Circular economy values and principles is by by creating programs that actually provide immediate value or quick wins to people that enable them to say. So this is what the circular economy means. So in our recyclable resource recovery collection system, by saying to people, we don't want you to recycle for the environment, we want you to recycle for jobs for Malaysians or Singaporeans. So when you change the narrative and you can prove that your action to dump a plastic bottle into the right being will then get taken to a reprocessing factory and get reprocessed into some other product, perhaps even another plastic bottle, then then that becomes. Reality that becomes a real circle. They begin to understand that their action has value, not just environmental value, but action, but a value that gives jobs to their friends or colleagues or neighbors or whatever that is, they can see their country growing and most people are nationalistic. So when you capitalize on those things, you have a better chance of being able to engage them and saying these things are good for your country. When you ask people to do an action for the environment, most people feel overwhelmed by trying to save the environment. I think, you know, it's first of all, it's out there because we're all now living in urban environments. So we're not connected to the environment that we're supposedly trying to save. And also, most people, besides feeling overwhelmed, think it's not their job to save the environment. So when you shift that narrative and turn it into jobs and and other tangible components, then you have a better chance to engage people. So for us, recyclable resource recovery will be is turning out to be a very good on tray to be able to get people then to say, well, look at the value that we're providing in these areas. Let's look at circular design. Let's look at circular business models.
Katie Whalen [00:10:37] You mentioned some projects that you're you're working on in this arena. Could you tell me a little bit more about them?
Adrianna Zsakay [00:10:45] Okay, so of course, as I mentioned, we our first project really is the one that started off years ago, recyclable resource recovery collection system. We also have a consulting tool called the Six Steps Towards a Circular Business. It's a book that I've just finished and we're going to. And I'm just in the process of making the workshop manuals. So there'll be three workshop manuals that'll be finished by the end of March. The first one will be on circular supply chain. The second one will be the whole six steps, because we've actually found that some companies are interested in the whole six steps for a workshop, even though it's a be a very heavy duty workshop. We have found that there's interest. And the third the third, the workshop manual will be in circular design. So the six steps is actually has been created in a way that enables companies to pick and choose what sections are applicable to them. And then we can run workshops around what is applicable to them. So we have our consulting tool. We also have the Asian Plastics and Packaging Agreement. And even though there are some other ones around, such as the great one by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the global commitment, we believe that there is a need to build internal capacity within each country to build and manage a circular and sustainable plastics and packaging industry. It's not about focusing on single use plastics. It's not about focusing on plastic packaging.
[00:12:31] And as damaging as it is by by banning these things actually doesn't change behaviors and doesn't reward companies who want to make you who want to be innovative.
[00:12:44] So our aim, even though it's a very big aim. And most people think it's overwhelming, but it's not overwhelming. Well, me is to see the internal capacity with each country, because really the plastics industry is really made up of. There is nothing that you don't do and touch and traveling that has not got plastic in it. So a car has 50 percent, plastic claims have got 30, 40 percent plastic. And yet we're not creating polymers and we're not creating collection systems that sees that being reprocessed. And we're not creating labeling systems for consumers to be able to say, I have a choice. I can buy product A that has recycled content or I can buy product B, which has got Virgin Plastics. So we're not doing these things. And these things are absolutely vital for a sustainable and circular plastics and packaging industry. Yeah. So those that our projects. We have a couple of other ones I'm very keen on circular education, but we know we're a small organization and we're moving in. You know, we'd like to do events and we'd like to do. We'd like to do everything. But those are our three key things for the moment.
Katie Whalen [00:14:06] Yeah, well, that's that's. There's quite a lot for a small organization, as you say, and you have to prioritize and just start somewhere. I was thinking a little bit in terms of you your thinking like the different approaches from country to country. Do you have an example of one approach that might work well in one country versus a different country that's really determined by the political economics?
Adrianna Zsakay [00:14:28] In my opinion. So you need to get a handle on the political economics of the country. So let me give you an example. In Singapore, because I'm currently in Singapore, you have a very transparent government, a reasonably good democracy and and very little corruption. So you have a very vibrant business community and there. And it's also innovation is really encouraged. Now, you look at a country like Thailand, which is still currently, even though they're going to have elections later on this year. You have a country that is determined by military royalty and business. So the political economics is very different. And so your ability to to make change and to innovate be has a different dynamic. It's not good or bad. It's just as a different dynamic. You have a country like Japan, very rigid Confucian society, while not as rigid as Korea, but still rich, is still a Confucian society who prides themselves on on their. Their waste management systems, but their reprocessing is still a little weak. So and they have been sending waste to Egypt, to China, as they could do up until a close the doors. And so they're reassessing also. But you need to be able to factor in the Confucian society, the hierarchy. So how do you deal with people and how do you work your way through the hierarchy? And even though you think that the decision maker is at the top, the reality is that the decision makers are the people at the bottom because they're the ones who actually have to do the implementation. And that's well-respected within the Confucian system. But unless you understand that and there are many Westerners who think, oh, I if I'm going to meet the CEO when he says, yes, it's signed off. But the system works in such a way that the CEO needs to respect the people at the bottom who will do the implementation and that can. And if he can't get those people on board, it won't matter that the CEO signed off on it. So you need to be able to respect all those different all those different nuances within each country. We're looking at India, too. Very diverse country. Lots of people. One point three billion people. Very vibrant. Biggest democracy in the world. Quite a good legal system. So all these factors come into play when you think about implementation of circular economy processes and in anything you want to do within the context of the circuit court or changing economic systems.
Katie Whalen [00:17:35] Yeah, exactly. It definitely is not a one size fits all approach for these 24 different countries as I hear you explain it.
Adrianna Zsakay [00:17:44] Right. And they're also economically fragmented. So you have extremes like Singapore to allow Cambodia, Myanmar. There's a lot of fragmentation. So you need to be able to also consider to consider those things about how you what programs you implement, how you implement them and who you engage, the capacity building, the kinds of skills that you need to be able to training. There's a lot there's a lot.
Katie Whalen [00:18:12] Definitely. Thank you for sharing that. I find it really interesting. Shifting gears a little bit, I was curious if you could tell a little bit about and share some of the examples of initiatives you're seeing as steps towards circularity. So you mentioned the projects that you're working on at Circular economy Asia, but are there other initiatives and examples either within governments or within different companies that you see as steps towards implementing circular economy?
Katie Whalen [00:18:43] Okay, so there's some great things coming out of India. They're really trying, working hard to embrace a circular economy. They understand it and they see value in it. So they're running workshops, I'm saying, at quite a high level, as in there. The Confederation of Old Federation of Indian Companies, industry organizations are running some great workshops. But remember, India is a big place. One point three billion people. So there's a lot of work to do. But it's very positive. I'm getting a very, very positive sense of what's coming out of India. Singapore again. They've just they've just declared 2019 the year for zero waste. And they're not that zero waste is exactly the circular economy. But they're now included. That is a subset of circular economy is a subset of that. So there is there is movement within Singapore that they want to tag more initiatives. And and they're actually got quite a large fund to be able to fund. But they want to do within the smart city context. So they're looking at tech and rewarding tech businesses and industries who can come up with some great initiatives and ideas for better resource management. So there is some very exciting things. There are some smaller initiatives. Lots of little NGO is running around. Of course, recycling and waste is a big thing. What I'm not saying is that I'm not seeing more focus on the end game. As in you can you can put all this time and energy into recycling. But what's going to happen to it with the reprocessing facilities? What you know, you actually need to understand that because that's where the circularity comes into it, unless you can reprocess it into something and unless you can label it. So, again, consumer choice. So there's a little there's a few weaknesses. That need to be shored up, but over time that will also happen.
[00:20:59] Right. So if I'm hearing you correctly, you're saying that there's work in terms of implementing, say, designing for recycling, but then in terms of getting those products to the recycling system so that they actually can be recycled and incorporated in terms of into the system. Again, that's something that's not so much the focus.
Adrianna Zsakay [00:21:21] What? And I think the biggest problem has been is that traditionally environmentalists were focused on the recycling. So as long as I got something to be recycle and then that recyclable material was sold to a depot, that was the end of the story. And for Circular economy practitioners, that's the beginning of the story. The beginning of the story is okay, it's salt away depot, but really it needs to be moved to a recycling facility where it can be reprocessed domestically, not sent to another country to be reprocessed.
[00:22:03] And, you know, it's like you're exporting your resources to another country and you're exporting jobs. And unfortunately, many NGOs are still stuck in that environmental mindset. And that needs to be unstuck. And it needs to be saying that you need to expand your narrative, because when you look at the whole process, the circular economy personnel, the circular process, there's more value in understanding. What? What needs to be done? So I always use the argument. If I'm talking to an investor and I say to investor, I'd like you to invest money into a re processing facility. The investor will say, well, we need to have X percentage of of recyclable materials for our factory to be running at optimal at a profitable. Right now when you look at it at that, then you know what kind of infrastructure you need to create to be able to make to provide the feedstock for those company. And we're talking about not just plastics, we're talking about materials, fabrics.
[00:23:09] The fashion industry, that's been a big deal because it's so huge, you know, three trillion dollar industry. And yet we're not looking at what kind of. There have been some initiatives here in Asia, but they're taking the waste fabrics and sending them back to Europe to be re processed instead of rate processed domestically. And that needs to change. And so when you look at when you look at the investment into that re processing facility for fabrics, you need to look at the volume of feed stock. And when you know your volume of feed stock to break even and start to make a profit, that's when you were design for the collection system comes into play.
Katie Whalen [00:23:54] With this, you also highlight something that I'm curious to learn a little bit more about from you. How do you see the linkage between what's happening in terms of governments in and initiatives in the EU versus governments and initiatives in the Asian region?
[00:24:16] The biggest issue for me is that most is that really the circular economy is driven out of EU and there's a lot of really great stuff coming out of the EU now. This is also really great stuff coming out of Australia, New Zealand a little bit, coming out of the states. But the really the center of the universe for the EU, for the Circular economy is out of the EU over the last month. Things have crossed my desk. So for example, one of them was a EU funded initiative for lifelong learning for the circular economy. So when that cross my desk, I immediately contacted them because we're very keen to develop circular economy education programs. So when so when I when this crossed my desk and I contacted the organizers and I knew what the answer would be, but I contacted them and said, are you going to have a live feed? Can I participate?
[00:25:19] And I knew the answer would be no, but that's okay, because what I'm doing is pushing for them to think all ages interested. We've got somebody in Asia who wants to participate, so maybe the next one we will have a live feed or maybe we will open it up or we will share the information from that.
[00:25:42] So these are the things that we are very, very keen on. So if any of your listeners are involving any any capacity that can open these doors for us and to include us, you know, where or where they're where open to the inclusion. And we we're already pushing for that. Yes.
Katie Whalen [00:26:06] Okay. So one of the last questions, Adriana, that I ask all of my interview is, is about this educational game called in the loop that I created. And you haven't had the chance to play it yet. But essentially in the game, the players are companies that are producing products and they're trying to get materials to make their products. And they're also then selling their products. And sometimes they go to landfill. Sometimes they use circular strategies to get those products back and then they can reuse the materials to make new products. One of the most memorable parts of the game are the event cards. And so those happen every couple of minutes or so throughout the game and they just disrupt what's happening in the game and they're often inspired by real world events. So I was curious if you could create an event. Could you give me an idea of like what?
Adrianna Zsakay [00:27:00] That all would be all right. So actually, it will happen. OK. You are planning to expand the definition of their eco design. There are two things that will come out of that festival that will really change the game for companies who are exporting products into the EU. Now, the EU will roll that out. It will take time. There's a lot of implications in that kind of policy and it'll be done through perhaps soft policies and hard policies. We may see it incorporated into new free trade agreements or may be rolled out through through soft policies. But it's an area that I know that the EU are working on and it's a necessary area. Unless we can begin to push for circular design in a way that a country like an area like the EU, 600 million people begins to define that we're not going to accept products unless I made a certain circular design criteria. So that will be a disruptive event. Now. The downside of that is what we're seeing now is a cut in a country not come to countries like you, but trading blocs like the EU. Many Asian exporters are beginning to leave those markets because they are finding the regulatory hurdles just so tough. And when you have a growing middle class in Asia, you are finding Asian exporters are saying, well, we don't need the EU anymore. We don't need the US anymore. We can export to India or we can export into Asia because there's enough business within our four billion people that we can know that behind.
Katie Whalen [00:28:53] Yes, I would definitely agree that it would be a very disruptive event. Thank you so much for having this conversation. I really enjoy talking with you and learning more about Circular economy Asia.
[00:29:04] And thank you so much for inviting me and having me speak on on the things that I love to do. You know, we're here. We're very keen to really expand what we do. And so any way that anybody's interested to work with us where we're all is where open.
[00:29:23] Yes. Where can listeners get in touch with you to find out more about what you're working on or even to contact you directly?
Adrianna Zsakay [00:29:32] You can do that through our website www.CircularEconomyAsia.org and just fill the contact form. The contact form is is in the under the about us on the menu. So you won't see it easily. So if you just go to the drop down menu on about us, you'll see the contact form and then just contact me.
Katie Whalen [00:29:55] Yes. And I would definitely also encourage listeners to subscribe to the mailing list because I'm on your mailing list and I'm really impressed with the work and then the level of detail and content that you provide in the mailing lists. So I definitely recommend that listeners subscribe. Well, thank you so much.
Adrianna Zsakay [00:30:16] Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode. For show notes and links to the information that Adrianna mentioned in today's podcast. Go to our website at www.gettinginthelooppodcast.com.
Katie Whalen [00:30:28] And while you're there, subscribe to our mailing list to have new episodes delivered to your inbox every Monday. See you next week.
About the Show
Getting In the Loop is a weekly podcast dedicated to exploring how to transform to a more circular society. Join host Katie Whalen as she examines the challenges facing our current resource use and discovers alternatives to the ‘take, make, dispose’ way of doing things. Each week she interviews circular economy experts about what they’re doing and learning. Together we'll uncover what circular economy means in practice and find out what's being done to keep our resources in a loop rather than sent to waste.