Surendra Borad, Chairman Plastics Committee, BIR and Gemini Corp., Belgium, talks to Swaliha Shanavas about the status of the plastics recycling industry globally and highlights the need to allow free imports of plastics scrap as the quantity of local plastics generation is not sufficient to establish a state-of-the-art recycling industry in the Middle East.
Tell us a bit about your background and experience in this industry. As the head of Gemini Corp, what is your typical workday like?
I was raised in a village in Rajasthan, India. After my accounting education, I landed up in London for business training. When I bought a writing pen in my village, the shopkeeper would give me just the pen, but when I bought a writing pen in Europe, the shopkeeper would give a pen wrapped over with a lot of packaging materials. I used to wonder what Europeans would do with so much packaging waste around them; sooner or later they would face a lot of problems in handling this waste, I thought. As the income grows the volume of such waste will grow, and one day the thought of being able to do something with the waste crossed my mind and I got into this business.
Since then, I have never looked back. If I have to start all over again, I would still choose this business. We are currently processing annually over 300K (three hundred thousand tonnes) of plastics, over 800k (eight hundred thousand tonnes) of metals and 300k (three hundred thousand tonnes) of rubber and other energy to waste material. A workforce of over 225 people spread over 16 countries annually generates a revenue of over USD520 million.
My typical workday starts with editing the list of tasks prepared a day earlier. The work agenda must be set in advance before I open the desktop. I believe that if you open the emails before you set your own task-list, the agenda is set by external inputs from emails. Most of my time is spent in guiding and changing the beliefs and mindset of people. I do not receive many phone calls, so I can concentrate on new projects or people and processes.
In your capacity as Chairman, Plastics Committee-BIR for many years, how has your journey been so far?
I had the opportunity of networking with businessmen from all corners of the world. You learn different ways of handling recyclables. Every businessperson has his own perspective and viewpoints. I often meet high ranking officers of the European Commission. Such meetings present opportunities to exchange views and influence their decisions from international trade point of view. I interact with people from the press fraternity and am able to convey my opinions and ideas. This has been a great learning ground.
What is the current state of plastic recycling industry worldwide and in Europe? What kind of progress has there been in terms of innovative solutions for various applications in different sectors?
There have been tremendous changes in the technology of sorting, baling, processing and distribution of plastics scrap. There is a real RE-cycling in the form of bottle to bottle application. I think actual Recycling takes place when the reprocessed materials can be used for the same purpose for which it was originally produced. It is not possible to use it for the same purpose, so we should call it DOWN-cycling. Increasing application in automobiles is also a very encouraging development, but still has a long way to go. Europe recycles only about 30% of plastics it generates, and USA recycles about 14%. After the short first-use, as per World Economic Forum, 95% of plastic packaging loses its economic value. We must find ways to create economic value for these vast amounts of sources through innovations.
How significant is plastic recycling to the Middle East and how do you view the region’s status in this regard? Have there been any changes /developments in recent years?
Plastics recycling in the Middle East is still in its infancy. Currently, plastics scrap is not allowed to be imported. You need economy of scale in production, but the quantity of local plastics generation is not sufficient to establish a state of the art recycling industry. Therefore, the Middle East region needs to allow free imports of plastic scrap. The region needs to introduce the system of Extended Producer Responsibility where the producers/importers are responsible for recovery of the waste. Fees collected from these producers/importers can be spent on subsidising the collection and handling of scrap. The Middle East authorities should adopt the system and technologies from well-experienced countries like Belgium, which is a pioneer in every aspect of waste management. They have created a splendid legal frame for collection, sorting and handling of waste. I am always amazed at the way Europe creates infrastructure and systems. First, they made predictable and stable laws. The industry is given legal targets years in advance and a transition period before the enforcement. The End of Life Vehicle regulations of Europe were enacted in 2002 with targets for enforcement in 2015. I already hear of targets for 2025 and 2050. Such predictability and stableness attracts investment in billions. One of the positive developments in the Middle East is the creation of public awareness to the need of recycling. This is a very good development in the right direction.
What in your view are the biggest impediments to the growth of plastics recycling sector in the region?
The biggest impediment is the mindset of the people. We must change our mindset; the mindset of general public, authorities, decision makers, leaders and politicians. At present even general public consider all scrap as waste. If you consider anything as waste you would do everything to make sure that such things do not enter your area. You would impose multiple restrictions in handling waste. In that case we can never capitalise on the potential. As long as the authorities consider plastics scrap as WASTE, there will be less interest in the plastics recycling industry. We need to realise that there is no need for underground mining when there is so much to recover from above ground including urban mines. We have borrowed this earth from the next generation and we owe it to them to keep it in good condition. Governments must strongly discourage landfilling.
How important is plastics recycling for the development of a Circular Economy? What are the opportunities and hurdles in implementing this concept?
Every year over 300m tonnes of virgin plastics are used to produce different products. It is essential that there must be recovery of a substantial portion of this quantity. Increasing amounts of e-scrap and automobile scrap will generate huge quantity of plastics. Both electronics and automobile industries have between 10-20 percent of the materials in the form of plastics. It is a huge quantity. Everyone uses plastics every day. For the successful creation of circular economy, the inclusion of plastics recycling is an absolutely must. In the metal and paper industry the interest of prime producers are directly linked to the growth of metal and paper recycling business. But with regard to plastics scrap, this is not the case. It is not in the economic interest of prime producers to encourage plastics recycling. Every tonne of recycled plastics leads to one ton less sales for the prime producers. The prime producers have huge budgets for lobby and public relationship. The plastics scrap association are very weak and less resourceful in comparison. Only the public and government push can change the scenario.
Do you think public private partnership model will help in the growth of the plastic recycling industry?
In this developing world, there is paramount need to establish public private partnership. This is a very fertile ground to inculcate the benefits of recycling in the minds of authorities. Such a model is a beautiful combination of social responsibility and financial gains. The government can provide land at subsidised rate; the government can provide collection infrastructure and can also enforce discipline in household waste handling. The private enterprise in turn will process it in the most economical way for financial gain.
What are the changes one can expect in this sector in the near future, and what is your advice for the companies present in this sector and aspiring entrepreneurs?
There will be localisation of industry. The recycling industry will follow the principle of proximity. The principle of proximity calls for the management of waste as close as possible to the points of origin. It encourages efficient waste management by reducing the transport costs, by reducing the carbon emissions of transport and by making better use of local resources. International trade in scrap will be reduced. The existing companies should invest in technology. There is great threat of disruptions in business. I keep repeating in our Group that either DISRUPT or be ready to be DISRUPTED. The probability of becoming UBERISED is very strong. I would advise them to look for nonmature niche segments for recycling.
There will be an increase in trade of reprocessed materials. I would like to advise aspiring entrepreneurs that the recycling business is the most promising business of this century. The business is almost as big as the GDP of India. The current GDP of India is estimated to be about USD 2.2 trillion. The worldwide waste and waste related business is already worth about USD 1.8 trillion. The growth rate of GDP is about 7% to 8%, but the growth rate of the waste business is between 10% to 15% even at the global level. Studies by Bank of American Merrill Lynch, research organisations like Markets and Markets, Mckinsey and reports from United Nations all agree there is huge potential. This is therefore an industry where the business is growing by over 250 million dollars per day.
What are the other areas you are involved in?
I am involved in developing projects for energy to waste recovery, solar panel recycling, wind turbine recycling and agriculture waste recycling.
What do you love most about your job, and what is the most challenging aspect? And what do you like to do in your spare time?
I feel I do my bit in making the world a better place to live by giving a second life to scrap and waste. I think I am able to somewhat change the lives of people by providing them jobs, by instilling a sense of hygiene and sanitation through recycling and reuse. I believe the most challenging aspect of my job is to create and develop the right attitude in people. Skills can be taught but developing right attitude is the most difficult and demanding workload.
In my spare time I like to visit my village where I was raised. I was brought up in a small village; now I consider the whole world a small village. Life has come full circle. I believe we like to make money, but along with the way we share it by fulfilling our social responsibility by adopting villages for medical needs, by operating schools for underprivileged children and by planting and maintaining trees. Seven villages have been adopted to take care of their basic medical needs. Every day on average 250 patients get free medicine and care. Two schools with free education to 400 students are being run and maintained in the desert state of Rajasthan, India, and over a hundred thousand trees have been planted and are being maintained.