Designing the afterlife of plastics

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 30, 2019 - January 05, 2020.
Designing the afterlife of plastics
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Sector: Collecting, sorting, cleansing, processing and advanced recycling of plastic waste

Global problem being addressed: Recycling and upcycling plastic waste

Potential addressable market: US$600 billion globally and RM4.5 billion locally, with the potential to grow to RM20 billion per annum.

Number of patents: 17 pending

Product description and USP: Heng Hiap Industries Sdn Bhd uses technology to turn plastic waste into upcycled materials and energy. It has also developed a digitalisation strategy for the traceability of plastic products.

Currently exporting: Yes, to 33 countries. Main markets are Southeast Asia, India, Japan and Australia.

Industry challenges: More industry champions needed, as well as talent and funding

 

Once China announced that it would stop the import of plastic waste in 2018, the floodgates opened and the waste poured into Southeast Asia. Many wealthier nations were at a loss as to what to do with the mountains of waste and unscrupulous parties dumped their waste in countries such as Malaysia.

The unfortunate fact is that plastic waste takes at least 450 years, according to some estimates, to completely biodegrade. Plastic waste has killed millions of marine creatures and is found in their guts, which humans eventually consume.

At this point, as a player in the advanced recycling industry, Heng Hiap Industries Sdn Bhd founder and CEO Seah Kian Hoe certainly has his hands full. He converts plastic waste into various types of resins, which are then turned into products such as home appliances and automotive components. He also transforms plastic waste into the energy that powers his factory.

With his technology, Seah is pushing hard for the implementation of the circular economy in the plastics industry. “When I started the business in 2002, I did not believe in the plastic pollution problem and I still do not today. The problem starts when plastic stops being transformed [into something else]. If we design the afterlife of the plastic, we will never have this problem,” he says.

Seah points out that plastic is created from crude oil and eventually transformed into resin, which has a higher value. If the plastic is recycled at the end of its lifecycle, it becomes another product that continues to give value. If it is not recycled, it stops giving value. That is when the problem begins.

“The circular economy basically means that we have to keep transforming plastic because when it transforms, it gives value. Any plastic can be transformed seven times. Instead of using it once and throwing it away, we need to ensure that there is a continual transformation,” he says.

“After seven times, you use gasification to make your own diesel [from the plastic waste] to generate electricity. Or you turn it into hydrocarbon gas and it becomes raw material for plastic again.”

Seah’s factory does three types of recycling — mechanical recycling, which turns plastic scrap into recycled plastic; thermal recycling, which turns it into coal; and chemical recycling, which breaks it down into carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, which are then turned into diesel to power the factory.

Next year, he wants to take this a step further and increase the demand for upcycled plastic products using digital tools. He wants to create products using ocean-bound or ocean-avoided plastic — plastic materials that are recovered from the ocean or coastal areas — and document the entire process.

“For example, if you buy a chair that is made of ocean plastic, it has a QR code that you can scan and it tells you the entire footprint of the product, including when the plastic was collected and when the material was converted, created and shipped,” says Seah.

“I think that is something that will add a lot of value. When we want to buy plastic products, we will have an option to buy one that is made directly from crude oil or a sustainable plastic [that is made of recycled plastic].”

This can create a demand for recycled plastic products such as office chairs or furniture, thereby curbing additional plastic from going into the ocean and promoting the recovery of ocean plastic.

Seah believes that with digitalisation, he can build a community of collectors, converters, co-creators and champions — the four ‘C’s — in the plastic industry. “Collectors get plastic from the ocean, convertors turn it into on-spec materials, co-creators use it to develop well-designed products with a good story and champions are the brands that bring it to the consumer,” he says.

Seah is planning to launch this platform next year and hopefully, roll it out in other countries that are also suffering from plastic pollution challenges. According to various reports, the EU and the US — which are among the world’s biggest exporters of plastic waste — have been diverting their waste to Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and other countries. But the imported plastic waste is not being properly recycled.

“Even if we expand regionally, we will be making a global impact because most of the plastic pollution is happening around here. We are the plastic dump,” says Seah.

He is already talking to potential partners to export this technology. “What we think will make this really cool is if we package it together with digitalisation. Then, we will have a complete solution, which is what we are building now,” he says.

 

Going forward in the industry

It will take strong champions for the circular economy to take off in the plastics industry, Seah points out. This could be companies that believe in sustainability and are willing to adopt these practices in their businesses. For instance, a furniture company could commit to using ocean-bound plastic to produce 20% of its products.

“Most of the customers we work with are very far-sighted and supportive of sustainability practices. But not everyone thinks this way. Most people still want to buy the cheapest product out there,” he says.

Seah also needs help in the form of talent and funding.

He is already working with a company to create chairs made of ocean-bound plastic. He is also working with an oil palm plantation to collect used fertiliser and pesticide plastic bags or containers to be turned into chairs for the schools in the estates. Many companies are becoming more conscious of plastic pollution and are eager to make a difference, as are consumers, he observes.

“We encourage businesses to find their four ‘C’s. Let’s say, a coffee shop wants to be a champion in the circular economy. It has to find collectors and co-create [the collected plastic] another product. Or it can support biodiesel made with the plastic it collected,” says Seah.

Another factor to enable the circularity of plastic involves behavioural change. There are two types of plastic waste — above-ground plastics, which are clearly sorted from other trash and not exposed to soil, moisture or sunlight, and below-ground plastics, which are the result of uncontrolled disposal.

Above-ground plastics can be turned into raw materials, but below-ground plastics require more cost and effort to be recycled. This is where individuals and businesses must make sure that the plastic waste collected stays above ground.

“For instance, make sure that the plastic scrap collector brings it to the nearby recycling community. I have a friend who told me that this process is expensive. He said he would have to collect a whole week’s worth of plastic scrap and offload it at a junkyard and not get paid much for it,” says Seah.

“Should he do it? Yes, because when you do this, you create above-ground scrap and displace below-ground scrap, thus continuing the circularity.”

What about biodegradable plastic? Would that solve the issue of below-ground plastic scrap, seeing that the use of plastic can be unavoidable at times? He says it is a good concept, but it can be difficult to achieve.

“You need to answer three questions. When does it start to degrade and how do you activate that process? You can activate it with sunlight, microbia or organic substances.

“Second, how long does it take to fully degrade? If it stops degrading at 60%, then it is bad. If you use organic substances, the organic portion will degrade. But what about the plastic composite or polymer? If it is not 100% biodegradable, then you are creating more micro plastic.”

If the biodegradable plastic is 100% plant-based, the consumer has to consider whether the combined footprint of the product is lower than recycling plastic. For instance, the carbon footprint of seaweed farming to create seaweed-based biodegradable plastic has to be low. Consumers also have to consider whether the raw material is competing with animal feed or food sources.

Seah has a biodegradable plastic product that is activated by soil and bacteria under certain conditions. But it is not a product that he pushes because he believes that the circularity of plastic waste is a more sustainable solution.

“To achieve a circular economy, you have to forego the habit of convenience. You need to think about how you can ensure the plastic stays above ground after use. That is your responsibility as a plastic user,” he says.

“For biodegradable plastics, [you may think that] someone else will take care of that and you can still embrace your convenience. I do not think we can sustain this linear consumer behaviour.”

Regardless, Seah believes that this kind of innovation is needed to explore the different kinds of solutions. “When you talk about reducing [the use of plastic], I am 100% for it, including the reuse [of plastic]. We need to reduce our dependence [on plastic] and of course, recycle plastic,” he says.