Wading through the plastic waste challenge
Surendra Patawari, Founder and Chairman of Gemini Corporation, a GPCA member company, discusses the importance of diverting plastic waste from landfills and explains why he believes the circular economy is the way forward
How big is the plastic challenge today and what will it take to address it?
The issue of plastic waste is much more serious than it is led to believe. Would you believe, the world generates 1 million tons of plastic waste daily but less than 10% of it is recycled. The production of prime plastics is growing by more than 3%, but the recycling rate is growing at less than 2%. At this rate, we will have 12 billion tons of plastics waste by 2050.
Even after so many debates and discussions about plastic recycling, the global recycling rate is going down. Unfortunately, in some countries, recycling rates remain low. In Russia it is as low as 7%, 10% in the US, and 12% in Australia. Europe, Korea, and India are a few with above 30% recycling.
There is a need to educate policy makers and the public about plastic. It is a lack of understanding about the ground realities that led to restrictions on plastics trade in a convention in BASEL which came into action from January this year. Plastic scrap has been placed under the restrictive trade category leading to restrictions on the movement of plastics across countries. The net impact will be a reduction in the rate of recycling, particularly in the developing world. You need a minimum quantity of input to be competitive. Restrictions will reduce the availability of inputs. As a result, the global recycling rate will come down.
As it is, the international trade of plastic waste has come substantially down from 15 million tons in 2016 to almost 3 million tons in 2020, causing lower availability of scrap.
The main challenge is to first eliminate the lack of understanding about plastic. Plastics are considered to be evil or compared with tobacco. The world should know we cannot live without plastics. The global pandemic has proven this yet again.
We need to find a concrete solution. To start with, let us address the issue of collection. Two billion people worldwide do not have access to a basic waste collection system. Governments should make policies that promote the use of recycled plastics. Taxation benefits to subsidizing the cost of recycled products are good ways to start with.
You believe that the circular economy is the only way forward. Could you explain why, and what in your opinion will be the drivers to enable a circular economy in the Arabian Gulf?
The circular economy is one of the most important ways forward to finding a solution. The model aims to eliminate waste and keep resources in a closed loop.
Besides circular economy, we need to address the designing system. Producers need to rethink their use and design the product considering its end of life. We need to come up with efficient sorting methods at the origin and efforts to find solutions to reuse rather than recycle.
Adopting a circular economy approach will minimize waste generation, it will enable better utilization of available resources, prevent waste from entering the desert and ocean and reduce total annual greenhouse gas emission.
The Arabian Gulf must consider the introduction of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Besides this, they should adopt a policy similar to South Africa’s voluntary systems, where processors of virgin material have to pay recycling costs at the time of purchase. This way the processors of virgin material may be persuaded to pay the price.
A major challenge in plastic recycling is the availability of feedstock. You need a minimum quantity for scaling up the operations. In the past, the industry did not get sufficient feedstock, and in some cases the availability was negligible. We can increase the availability of feedstock by allowing imports with proper checks and audits.
Gemini was built on a unique model and plays a key role in diverting plastic waste from landfills and enabling the circular economy. Could you tell us more about the work you do and how does it advance the circular economy?
Gemini deals in plastics, paper, metal, and rubber, giving a second life to 2 million tons of recyclable material annually. With our operations spread across 60 countries, we collect scrap from 1,000 locations monthly worldwide. Our work has always been appreciated by the recycling community. The recent recognition by the World Economic Forum, “Excellence in Sustainability” Award is another feather in our cap.
Gemini’s business model works on the concept of circular economy. We collect plastic waste from producers, reprocess it at our owned or partnered facilities, and supply the reprocessed output as finished products to the producers. We are working with manufacturers and brand owners to fulfil their EPR commitment and traceable value chain.
How big is the recyclable plastics market and which countries globally will drive demand growth moving forward? Do you have any plans to establish (if you don’t already have) your presence in the GCC or strengthen your presence in the region?
The Fortune Business insights latest reports indicate the global recycled plastic market size is projected to reach USD 72.6 billion by the end of 2026. The increase in awareness and concern about the environment has led to a growing preference for recycled plastics over virgin plastics.
Manufacturing methods and quality of recycled material used will be the key driver for the growth of this market. Many companies adopting sustainable growth and an increase in the application scope of recycled material in various industries will provide opportunities for the recycling industry to grow. Rising support from the government in the form of framing policies and providing incentives in this segment is a major factor for growth.
We have always worked in the fields and put this experience to improve the existing recycling practices. We have started exploring opportunities to expand our business in the GCC and we see an immediate need to address the concern of the poor quality of feedstock available. There should be cooperation with prime producers to provide off-grade material. We can mix the available feedstock and the off-grade to produce better quality recycled material.
You’ve demonstrated a great commitment to the ethical supply chain. Tell us more about the importance of ensuring supply chains are ethical, sustainable, and support CSR and how can businesses play their part in advancing this ambition?
Companies have started noticing how and what actions they take are influencing their potential customers. There is a high emphasis placed on how companies incorporate ethical practices be it in manufacturing, social and human rights, and environmental impact.
Assessing suppliers and their supply chain, monitoring environmental risks, labor laws, and supply chain transparency are a few factors to be considered. Businesses today need to validate their operational areas and develop strategies to minimize economic, social, and environmental impact.
Our recent project in India, Gemcorp Recycling, which started as a social project is now a full-fledged business. We realized collection is the major problem in the entire chain. Hence, we introduced small mini plants at various collection centres. The reclaimers (waste-pickers whom we address as reclaimers to give dignity to their job) get their collected materials which are segregated, grinded, and baled at these centres. This material is then reprocessed into granules with the mixing of off-grade to improve the quality of the material. Finally, the granules are used to make final products like packaging films. We provide complete transparency and traceability in our operations.
Today we have 25 such collection centres, making the life of thousands of people better. We have collected 5,000 MT of plastics waste in one year of the project’s inception. This is a fine example of a partnership between People, Planet, Plastics, and ultimately Profits.
As part of your CSR initiatives and giving back to society, you’ve set up two schools in India. What is the link between education and eliminating plastic waste?
I believe education is the key to an individual’s overall growth. In the villages of Rajasthan (India), we have built two schools where 400 students get free education. We provide uniforms, books, pay their fees, and ensure they get the best in class education for a brighter future. We also give special focus on educating them about the importance of recycling. Earlier the locals would dump their garbage in a non-systematic manner. Today, the entire village segregates the waste in different bins and gives their waste to collection vans every morning. Education played a vital role in bringing this change.
There is a huge problem of lack of awareness and ignorance about plastics. With an increase in environmental problems, we need to educate our society. Basics on how important it is to segregate waste and manage it. Educational institutions need to introduce environmental education as part of the curriculum to fight against the crisis. It will provide us an understanding of the current crisis and allow us to develop a positive attitude to think of innovative solutions to tackle waste management challenges.
How important do you think it is that a company like yours is a part of platforms such as GPCA and Alliance to End Plastic Waste to create value and drive successful partnerships?
GPCA is a big platform that is supporting the interest of the growing chemical industry in the Arabian Gulf region by providing advocacy, networking, knowledge sharing, and thought leadership initiatives to its member companies.
It is commendable to see GPCA leading the efforts in plastic sustainability, recycling, and the environment through its fastest-growing regional awareness campaign Waste Free Environment.
GPCA will give us access to establish connections with professionals from global and regional companies. Furthermore, it adds credibility to our brand by becoming a part of the largest and most influential network of the chemical industry in the Arabian Gulf.
The CEO-led Alliance to End Plastic waste is another great platform for the recycling community to come together and take concrete steps to end plastic waste. I am on the board of directors of the Alliance To End Plastic Waste and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP).
It is impressive to see Borouge becoming a strategic partner of project STOP. It directly works with partners and communities and aims to establish a plastics circular economy for waste management.
As a company that works at the grass-roots level, we have the expertise of knowing the entire life cycle of recycling. We have always gotten our hands dirty and put this experience to improve the existing recycling practices. Recycling is our passion and we will continue to strive and make the world a better place to live in.
It is good to see the world is learning about sustainability and circularity. The role that alliances and associations such as GPCA play is vital to bring awareness on a global level. Though, what is more important is to see how these discussions convert it into real actions. The action can be as small as all organization members providing their off-grade material to make the quality of recycled material better. And together we can build a better place to live in.