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Friday, June 21, 2024

Strengthening public-private partnership for plastic ‘rebirth’

By Dung Nguyen

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Recycling is a requisite within the framework of the circular economy, in which the plastics industry garners significant attention due to its crucial role in the production cycle of several consumer goods. Plastic recycling not only yields annual cost savings of US$2.2 billion in raw materials, but also contributes to pollution reduction efforts and fosters sustainable development.

Reshaping the cycle of plastics

Plastic waste has become a pressing issue, posing a double threat to both the environment and valuable resources. Vietnam’s failure to recycle plastic waste has cost the nation US$2.2-2.9 billion a year. The issue is further complicated given that oil and byproducts as the key raw materials for plastic production are also becoming more exhausted, with price volatility on an upward trend.

From manufacturing to the hands of the customer, the current distribution process of plastics is grappling with formidable obstacles that impede its sustainable advancement. During the collection phase, a significant drop in plastics recycling rates has been observed, posing a major challenge in the recycling process. The limited quality of plastics for reuse poses yet another barrier that requires a practical solution.

“The most efficient way to address this issue is to redirect the flow of plastics so that it can be circulated and reused instead of being thrown away,” said Nguyen Thi Bich Van, president of Unilever Vietnam, during the Vietnam Circular Economy Forum 2023 held recently by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. The event carried the theme of “Building a national action plan to adopt the circular economy.”

For many years, the multinational consumer goods corporation has been at the forefront of “reshaping the plastic flow” through its pioneering efforts in product redesign. Van said Unilever Vietnam actively promotes initiatives on packaging materials in line with the principles of the circular economy.

Currently, the company has managed to make 63% of its packaging recyclable or easily decomposable. Additionally, Unilever has reduced the use of virgin plastics in packaging production by 52% through direct reduction and the growing use of recycled plastics.

Following product packaging, the plastics flow’s next steps are the collection and post-use recycling phases. Eventually, the plastic bottles that have been collected will be sorted and recycled so that they can be used again in the production of other items.

As a result, the collection and recycling phases play a significant role in Unilever’s new model. Data by the firm showed that Unilever has reached out to and made positive improvements in the lives of 2,500 informal waste collection workers. “Most of them are women, and we also strive to honor and empower them so that they can have a better life. Additionally, we have effectively conveyed the importance of waste segregation at source to nearly 12 million individuals through various direct and mass media platforms,” she added.

The circular economy model for plastics at Unilever

The sustainable cycle of plastics also involves distributors, particularly local retailers, who bring products packaged with recycled plastic to consumers. Additionally, it is important to encourage customers to keep sorting their own plastic trash and ensure the flow of the cycle. “The key aspects in plastic circulation are design, cooperation, and awareness,” said Van.

Cooperation is vital

Efforts to build a circular chain of plastic face several roadblocks from market players, but the good news is that an increasing number of stakeholders are getting together to address the waste plastic issue.

Deputy Prime Minister Tran Hong Ha delivers his remarks at the Vietnam Circular Economy Forum 2023

In February 2020, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, in collaboration with three companies including Unilever Vietnam, SCG, and Dow, launched a “public-private partnership to build a circular economy in waste management,” or PPC. On a national scale, the endeavor strives to manage product life cycles, increase sustainable raw material supply, raise public awareness, and stimulate innovation and creativity.

Over the past three years, the PPC has collected and recycled a staggering 25,000 tons of plastic waste, making it useful for daily needs. The reach of the PPC has expanded significantly, with over 30 members who engage in several phases of the recycling circle. Participants include not just the public sector, but also recyclers like Duy Tan Plastic Recycling, collection partners like Vietcycle, local Women’s and Youth Unions, and retail businesses like Central Retail.

Le Anh, Sustainability Director of Duy Tan Plastic Recycling, stated at a recent event that major players in Vietnam’s food and cosmetics industries are highly interested in bringing recycled plastic products to the market, even though the effort will cost more and cause additional challenges during production. Various stakeholders have joined hands to amplify their voices on media platforms, aiming to raise awareness and rally support for environmental protection, the establishment of a circular economy, and the promotion of a green economy.

The concept of responsibility is now embedded in every aspect of the plastics industry’s circular chain. In the eyes of manufacturers, the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Decree mandates that businesses take responsibility for their products even after they are discarded as waste. For individuals, household solid waste must be classified at source, as required by relevant agencies. Given the proactive efforts in sustaining the eco-friendly plastic recycling circle, the market players and those involved in the value chain will be able to work together more effectively.

The regulatory frameworks are crucial for advancing the circular economy, especially in the plastics industry and other sectors. Currently, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is working with the relevant agencies to finish the draft National Action Plan in adopting the circular economy by 2030. It is worth mentioning that Vietnam was among the first countries in ASEAN to incorporate the concept of circular economy into the Law on Environmental Protection and related guidelines.

As Van put it,  it is crucial to provide incentives to businesses that integrate recycled plastics into their manufacturing activities and actively promote the growth of the plastic recycling sector. Furthermore, additional investment in innovation is required for processing common kinds of plastics in the market, as well as the construction of comprehensive waste collection systems.

Above all, the sustainable growth of the plastic recycling efforts still requires the collaboration of all stakeholders involved, including management agencies, international organizations, manufacturers, waste collectors, and recyclers. Considering the community’s pivotal role in the process, the question remains of how to efficiently motivate individuals to sort plastic waste at source and ensure the supply of high-quality materials for recycling.

“It is easier said than done when it comes to the circular economy of plastics. The daunting task requires a significant amount of work, dedication, and investment. And Unilever and our partners are giving this endeavor our all,” said Van.

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