Sustainability lessons for Thailand from the frontline of global business
The Nation spoke to Ashok Menon, APAC director of Sustainability Strategy at Saudi chemical giant SABIC, about breakthroughs, challenges and real-life progress towards a cleaner world
Plastics is a massive industry. How are sustainable practices being managed and implemented in the industry?
Plastic enables much of our daily lives, from keeping us clothed to ensuring that fresh food reaches our table. When it comes to key infrastructure, renewable energy, or even producing electric vehicles, there is not a comparable material that is both lightweight and durable. But while their valuable use is not debated, some of these plastics end up in landfills or the ocean.
While recycling rates vary across countries, according to the OECD’s 2022 “Global Plastics Outlook” report, only 9% of plastic was recycled in 2019. But as the recycling industry is mostly informal, the actual number may be much higher. Nevertheless, the entire world has a long way to go to reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. There are many factors that affect recycling rates – from better consumer education, designing for recyclability, waste segregation, plastic identification, civic infrastructures and an organised recycling industry.
SABIC’s vision for the future is that plastic should never end up in the environment, landfill or in our oceans and instead be reused and remade into new products. This vision requires a total transformation of the value chain and we have been working closely with partners across the value chain to promote a circular economy.
We announced our 2030 target to deliver 1 million tonnes of circular, polymer solutions each year, where SABIC would upscale volumes of advanced and mechanical recycling as well as bio-based materials.
Have there been any breakthroughs for the sector's future sustainability? I’m thinking of the aviation sector, where the focus is on sustainable fuel made from waste and renewable biomass.
Innovation gives our business an economic edge and helps us to contribute towards a sustainable future for all. In 2019, our innovation enabled us to pioneer the production of certified circular polymers using a feedstock from mixed and used plastics.
Since then, we have introduced a number of innovative market solutions under the TRUCIRCLE portfolio, which includes our collaboration with Scientex, a leading manufacturer of plastic packaging in Malaysia, to produce the world’s first recycled, flexible food packaging using ocean-bound plastic. The plastic is being collected from Malaysia’s waterways and recycled for use in premium noodles packaging.
What is SABIC doing to increase sustainability.
SABIC is one of the world’s largest petrochemicals manufacturers, and our business strategy is driven by our sustainability embedded goals.
We recently reaffirmed our commitment to accelerating the circular carbon economy by announcing plans to process one million tonnes of plastics annually through our innovative TRUCIRCLE solutions by 2030 to help give value chain partners access to more sustainable materials and solutions.
SABIC’s TRUCIRCLE portfolio and services showcase our circular innovations, and provides brand owners with access to more sustainable materials. That way, they can give the end-consumer more confidence about buying products with the reassurance that the material can be recycled and repurposed.
From ideas to implementation, the industry must have made many important circular products. What are they?
For more than a decade, SABIC has been collaborating with our value chain partners to drive sustainable products. We introduced our TRUCIRCLE portfolio and services to reinvent and pioneer our way towards a circular economy for the good of people and the planet, and to close the loop on used plastic.
SABIC collaborated with Unilever’s ice cream brand, Magnum, to create the “world’s first” tub within the ice cream industry that contains recycled plastic, and Mars and Landbell in an innovative recycling project designed to close the loop on KIND® snack bar wrap.
We also collaborated with Microsoft Corporation to create the Microsoft Ocean Plastic Mouse, which features an exterior shell containing 20% mechanically recycled ocean plastic. Now, we are working with Scientex, a leading manufacturer in plastic packaging in Malaysia, to produce the world’s first recycled, flexible food packaging using ocean-bound plastic. The plastic is being collected from Malaysia’s waterways and recycled for use in premium noodles packaging.
What are the biggest challenges faced by big players in the industry when it comes to recycling and waste management?
There is strong global demand for plastics given their valuable use. For businesses, one of the biggest challenges to scaling up recycling is access to sorted plastic-waste feedstock. This requires better consumer education, civic infrastructures and investments in recycling capacity.
Do you have any recommendations for Thailand? The nation has made significant efforts to handle plastic waste, but it still leaks into the environment.
Every region and geography has its own opportunities and challenges when it comes to sustainability, and the entire world has a long way to reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. Thailand has put in place a robust roadmap to handle plastic waste management, and has already made good progress with the ban of e-waste imports and single-use plastics such as shopping bags. The government is also taking the necessary steps to promote a circular economy by encouraging further collaboration between policymakers, businesses and consumers.
How do you deal with plastic waste in your personal life and how do you explain its importance to your loved ones?
There is no doubt that plastic enables much of our daily lives, and is an important material used across key industries. Recycling is a great way for individuals to help end plastic waste, and here are some areas where I believe that we as individuals can make a difference in addressing one of the major problems of collecting properly sorted plastics.
Plastic has a lower carbon footprint compared to the many alternatives it is replacing. We should always try to adopt a "Reuse" mindset – individual efforts can collectively add up to a big impact; and ultimately, education is key to understanding the different types of plastics around us, and how to properly segregate used plastic in our homes without contamination to enable better recycling efforts.