Ashwin Subramaniam is CEO and Founder of GA Circular – Creating Circular Economy Deployments in Asia. SEA circular is working closely with GA Circular to create develop research and data on upstream plastic pollution. Here, we find out more about Ashwin and his inspiring vision to solve plastic pollution at source in South East Asia.
What motivates and inspires you to do what you do?
I am inspired every day by the opportunity to constantly learn. Our work on tackling waste (packaging, food and in the future in electronics) is fundamentally about solving an urgent environmental challenge. This requires a multidisciplinary approach – including business, economics, policy, communications, design and engineering.
At GA Circular we bring together research and data analytics, strategy and policy advisory, technical assistance and stakeholder engagement. We tackle waste management challenges at city, national and regional levels in South East Asia – in the drive towards a more circular economy.
Describe the personal journey that led you towards your work in circular economy, and the founding of GA Circular?
I watched an independent documentary film in 2012 which made me aware of the issue of marine plastics and its sheer global scale! Having lived and traveled across South East Asia I was witness to its rapid growth over the last two decades. I immediately saw the need to decouple economic development from unchecked environmental and social impacts.
I knew very little about circular economy to begin with, I spent a lot of time reading industry reports on packaging, food and waste management. I learnt from practitioners – this is something I still continue to do so. My background in business helps. I’ve built my team around the various skills sets needed to drive circular economy in the region.
"My sustainable business vision is for South East Asia to become a leading region, demonstrating how plastic pollution can be tackled at source"
What achievement are you most proud of in the work of GA Circular?
We have contributed valuable baseline data on plastic material flows and value chains in marine plastic hotspot countries. This includes five of the South East Asian countries that are among the top ten countries globally contributing most to ocean plastics. Our baseline data has enabled us to partner with various packaging and consumer goods companies, NGOs and government agencies. We are laying the foundation towards increasing recycling rates and solving plastic pollution at source – this makes me and the GA Circular team very proud.
What has been your biggest challenge you have faced in working to promote sustainable business and reduce plastic waste in South East Asia?
There are many challenges calling for attention! One of the biggest is the wildly optimistic assumptions that people often have regarding used packaging. Packaging is the dominant generator of plastic waste, responsible for 47 percent of global plastic waste. People assume that throwing a multi-layer wrapper in the recycling bin means it will get recycled. But unfortunately, it will not – based on our knowledge of available recycling technology in South East Asia! Even one of the most widely used and recyclable plastic types has a global recycling rate of only 12 percent.
Government agencies often assume that bio-based packaging can solve their city’s plastic waste problem. But this is possible only if bio-based packaging can be separated and recycled under specific conditions. This needs interventions and large investments. Fortunately, these assumptions are changing for the better, but they remain a significant challenge.
What is your sustainable business vision?
My sustainable business vision is for South East Asia to become a leading region, demonstrating how plastic pollution can be tackled at source through optimal interventions in design, usage, collection, recycling, policy, business strategy and consumer behavior change.
What’s next for you in plastic pollution reduction? What are you working on right now and who are you collaborating with?
GA Circular is providing ongoing strategic advisory services in several South East Asian countries on industry-led Packaging Recovery Organisations, built on extended producer responsibility principles. We are developing material flow and value chain studies on several packaging types and researching the business models for applying recycling technologies in a local context in South East Asian cities. We are collaborating with a range of organisations – from packaging and consumer goods industries, government agencies, multilateral agencies and global NGOs.
"Market-based solutions will ensure that the true cost of using plastics is built into the products we all consume."
What in your view is the single most important factor which would help to solve marine plastic pollution at source in South East Asia?
Markets are not yet truly considering the full costs of using plastics. Plastic pollution (i.e. environmental costs, social costs) are the devastating result! Market-based solutions will ensure that the true cost of using plastics is built into the products we all consume. This is the most important factor in solving plastic pollution at source in South East Asia.