Getting Wise about Waste

Abishek Balasubramanian is the Head of Projects at GA Circular, a company based in Singapore. Founded in 2011, GA Circular is on a mission to create a world without waste. A 13-member team supported by up to 20 local team members, they are research and strategy experts in packaging and food waste in Asia, trying to drive the  circular economy in Asia. Some of their global clients include Coca-Cola, P&G, Unilever, UN Environment, and National Geographic among others. Nanditha Ravindar spoke to Abishek Balasubramanian to find out more about his work at GA Circular.

From a bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering from the National University of Singapore, how did you end up in the waste management space?

When I was studying Mechanical Engineering in University, I began doing side projects in photography, writing, and filmmaking. When I graduated, I realized that I did not want to take up a purely technical job but wanted to do work where I could combine quantitative thinking with creative storytelling. I joined GA Circular since it is focused on using data and on-ground analysis to understand waste and circular economy challenges in Asia and communicate that effectively to the relevant groups of stakeholders.
How would you explain the term “circular economy” in layman’s terms?

Most of us are familiar with what is called the‘linear economy’. It is when you take resources from agriculture, mining, etc and process it to make products which are consumed and thrown away, ending up in the landfills or leaking into the environment.  Landfills across the world rapidly filling up, unable to keep up with increased waste generation. The amount of waste entering the oceans is also increasing and at current rates, there will be more kilograms of plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050. The circular economy looks at the last step of this process; instead of waste ending up in landfills or the environment, it looks at how we can recover these materials and put it back into circulation such that they are used to produce new, valuable things.
I understand that GA Circular works with India and ASEAN countries. Which of these countries was the hardest to break into for the company, due to procedures, processes, or mindsets?

The work we do touches upon a wide range of stakeholders ranging from private sector multinational companies to city governments and NGOs. So it is less to do with a country being difficult to do projects in as much as it is about the presence of companies who want to be a part of a solution.
How do you choose the clients you decide to work with? Is there any hard and fast rule that the company follows?
Some of our projects have begun with companies hearing us present at events and wanting to work with us. Others are through connections through networks, past projects, and acquaintances. We are happy to partner with anybody involved in any way along the packaging value chain ranging from chemical manufacturers and packaging manufacturers, to brand owners, retailers, consumers, waste collection companies etc. A desire to create positive impact is the common criteria among all the clients we have worked with.
From your past experiences, what according to you is the major pain point of getting a company on board your idea of waste management?
In most of the countries we work in, laws on source separation of waste and recycling either do not exist, or are not enforced. So ultimately, we need companies that have decided to step up to the challenge of making the circular economy happen and want to be part of the solution proactively. 
How do you go about your baseline evaluation reports for a company? What are the criteria that you take into account for the same?

All across Asia, there is limited understanding of what the collection, recycling, landfill and leakage rates are for different packaging materials such as PET, HDPE, Aluminium, etc.  Without this data, it is very hard to get an alignment between all stakeholders to begin implementing solutions. The data is also critical to determine and quantify the impact of any efforts to tackle the packaging waste management challenge. Therefore, our clients typically want to identify the status quo of how much of each type of packaging material is being collected for recycling in a given city or country.They also want to know how much of the packaging is going to landfill, how much of it is ending up in the environment, and what are some steps that can be taken to ensure that more of it is collected for recycling instead.

We select cities and districts for the study, visit these areas,meet with people on the ground such as the informal waste collection sector (like thekabadiwallahs in India), and understand what that economy and value chain look like. We then collect primary data from all of these groups of people and use that to model a flow of what is currently happening with packaging and recommend what can be done to exponentially increase the collection for recycling. Typically, for a project of this type covering two cities in a country, it takes about three months from beginning of the project to getting the final data and recommendations.
Which country do you think is doing well in terms of waste management?

Waste management in developing countries tends to be more city-based than country-based because in the same country, different cities have different systems for waste collection and recycling. If you look at India for example, I would say that the cities that stand out to me are Bengaluru and Pune as they have a lot of citizen activism going on as well as NGOs working in this space. Waste collection laws have been written in such a way that it favours more eco-friendly collectors. So there are a lot of different factors at play. But broadly I can say that almost all countries are starting to step up to this challenge.Mexico and South Africa are two countries where we see good examples of the industry taking a leading role in creating systems to drive recycling at the national level. These system are known as ‘Packaging Collection and Recovery Initiatives’ or PCRI. The name of the organisation in Mexico implementing this is ECOCE, and the one in South Africa is PETCO. GA is currently working with leading consumer goods companies in Southeast Asia to implement PCRI systems to significantly increase the amount of packaging material collected for recycling.
These days, we see quite a few couples making headlines for organising plastic-free or eco-friendly weddings. Do you think awareness for such green initiatives is increasing? How does this juxtapose with the issue of climate change in the current scenario?

These days, we definitely see more and more people choosing to be responsible and conscious about how they live their life to minimize their impact. You need individual action because then you are working ground up, influencing your family, friends, your neigbourhood, and the local community which needs to happen. But that alone is not enough. We should also have people working on how to come up with better waste management and recycling systems, better design practices, inventing better materials that are not as harmful and so on. You need both individual action and systemic action.

As individuals, could you tell us a few things each person could do to reduce waste?
You can opt to minimize purchases of packaged items and consume things with less packaging. Understand what is happening in your local community regarding waste separation and collection for recycling. Try to favour products that are recycled more widely -for example, aluminium cans are recycled almost everywhere in the world whereas chips packets, or flexible plastic sachets are almost always not recycled. In terms of food waste, managing portion sizes better while ordering and avoiding over-catering of food for events would be good actions at the individual level. These would be my broad recommendations.

You can connect with Abishek Balasubramanian here on LinkedIn. To know more about GA Circular, visit their website here.