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Extended Producer Responsibility





Advanced Mechanical Recycling



Mixed Waste Sorting


Holistic Resource Systems





Deposit Return Systems



Annupa Ahi

VP Public Affairs – Head of Asia Business Development and Strategy at TOMRA

04 - EPR: Paving the Road to Circularity in Asia


Asia is the largest continent in the world, with many complex and culturally unique regions. This makes the development of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) frameworks for each region a large, complex, and unique undertaking.  
In our fourth episode on EPR, we talk to Annupa Ahi, VP Public Affairs – Head of Asia Business Development and Strategy at TOMRA, about Asia’s current vision for circularity, how important EPR is in achieving that vision, and so much more. 


Listen to the episode below, or use your favourite platform (Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcasts)


Show Notes

•    Defining a circular economy [01:09]

•    Drivers of policy change in Asia [03:02]

•    Asian countries at the forefront of EPR [05:19]

•    How cultural aspects influence system design [6:57]

•    Relying on reuse culture to improve circularity [9:04]

•    Why convenience is a must-have for EPR systems [12:59]

•    How to build an EPR scheme with system integrity [16:07]

•    Opportunities for countries establishing new systems [19:44]

•    Final thoughts [21:37]



Mithu: Welcome to TOMRA Talks Circular, where we explore how businesses, municipalities, and governments are collaborating towards a circular economy. In the last three episodes, we have been getting to know a bit about EPR or Extended Producer Responsibility, a concept that's been grounded in Europe and slowly gaining traction in different regions around the globe. 

One of these regions is Asia, where countries such as Singapore have recently elected to introduce a deposit return scheme, as well as focus on e-waste and packaging laws and other systems. In today's episode, we will focus on what's going on in Asia when it comes to EPR.

I am Mithu Mohren and our guest today, Annupa Mattu Ahi, Vice President Governmental Affairs and Head of Asia at TOMRA. Along with serving as a consultant to policymakers and how to set up EPR schemes. Annupa is a passionate speaker in major sustainability conferences throughout Asia. 

Annupa, welcome to the program. 

Annupa: Thank you, Mithu.

Mithu: So let's start at the beginning. How would you define a circular economy?

Annupa: Thanks for the question, Mithu. Good start. My definition and my understanding of circular economy is rather simple. I believe it is the process of transforming waste to a new resource endlessly. Or at least as far as you can go.

Mithu: That sounds reasonable. What's your circular economy journey?

Annupa: My personal circular economy journey has been very interesting, Mithu, to say the least. I think I can start by saying that I am a convert. I don't know if you know, but I worked with one of the largest retailers in Australia and I was leading their involvement in the container deposit scheme here in New South Wales. In that process, I may have played the role of slowing down the scheme for reasons that are not a secret to us anymore. And then after converting, identifying my passion while working with TOMRA, I have understood how much more could have been done at that level. 

I feel that retail and industry can become enablers. I can see that. And now I'm using this knowledge by being in both camps to contribute towards my engagement in the Asian countries where I'm working. For example, in Singapore, I have been invited several times to support the concerns of retailers and industry and help them through the process. So, it has been transformational to say the least.

Mithu: I guess we could say so we are certainly glad that you have seen the light and come to the right side.

Annupa: [laughs] Yes, I’d say so.

Mithu: Annupa, as I said before, EPR is beginning to gain foothold in Asia. What would you say is the driving this change in policy?

Annupa: This is true, Mithu. Concrete policy discussions on the potential value and feasibility of EPR-based legislation are currently underway in several East Asian and Southeast Asian countries. I would not say that there is a drive about changing the policy. I'll tell you why. I think the policy per se does not exist, or at least not as widely and strongly enough yet. 

But there is definitely the intention to establish EPR frameworks across a variety of material streams, and the reasons are many. Being a consumption and production powerhouse also makes Asia collectively one of the biggest contributors to marine litter … or the biggest contributor to marine litter. 

Most leading nations are on a rapid economic growth, which is driving massive environmental impacts, reducing their livability index. So, there is also an unprecedented need to have a sustainable, self-reliant, resource-based economy. Now, more than ever before, which is a very big driver of these discussions that we see.
Mithu: So, can you just take a step back on the livability index? How do we understand that? What is that?

Annupa: Livability Index is a comparison of how good your life is when it comes to your external environment. So, pollution and drinking water and access to waste management systems and so on and so forth. And there is a very big desire … a burning desire … post-pandemic especially when I speak to these governments around ensuring that they can allow their people to have a higher livability index by providing solutions that will avoid or reduce pollution. That will allow them a clean living environment and so on. 

Mithu: So, this is really about improving people's quality of life?

Annupa: Definitely. Definitely. 

Mithu: Okay. You have mentioned Singapore before, while we were talking about your journey. Which other countries are at the forefront of EPR and policy change?

Annupa: In Asia, based on my engagements and interactions, there are quite a few countries that are in the process of designing holistic and EPR frameworks, at least with the ambition of that. You have to understand that these nations are rather large and complex, and therefore so is the process of developing a suitable EPR framework. 

I could say that Singapore at the moment is leading in many ways in setting their vision as well as the approach to reach the vision. They have a zero waste goal aimed at high recovery before incineration. This is being managed by the Resource Sustainability Act, under which then EPR is being implemented. So, e-waste EPR was implemented in 2021 and now we are looking at a beverage container collection scheme. 

However … Vietnam, India, Malaysia are also looking at EPR frameworks. India and Vietnam have both published their draft versions for consultation. And Japan, Korea, Taiwan … they have already introduced EPR programs for a variety of items, including containers and packaging, diapers, appliances and so on. But they're not without their challenges. 

So, the ones that are existing need more work. The new ones that are being led by countries such as Singapore seem to be a bit more researched, a bit more scientific in their in their approach.
Mithu: Okay … you've just gone through a whole list of countries like Japan, Korea, Taiwan, India, Singapore. And let's just say Asia is not Asia … there are cultural differences. In our discussion, you've told me that EPR has indeed cultural aspects. What do you mean by that? Were there specific challenges that address this issue?

Annupa: [hmm] This is an observation. Yes, Mithu. I remember Dr. Fritz, who is quite an expert on EPR, once said that EPR is not a science. It must be developed to respond to the specific needs of the region, bearing in mind also the social and cultural aspects. 

Now, Asia has some unique traits that cannot be ignored while designing the EPR solutions. I'm talking about things such as the parallel or otherwise known as the informal waste management systems. The dense, urbanized living. The lack of faith in copying Western systems for the reasons I just stated, thus driving the need for trials and proof of concepts and so on. 

Fundamentally, the compliance and behaviors are very strong factors in ensuring the effectiveness of these schemes. And I can tell you that they are varied in most of these Asian countries. On top of that, some very fundamental factors … such as definition of recycling itself … can also quite significantly change the impact to the ecosystem that you wish to create. 

But I do think that there is a clear opportunity to learn from the part of the world … those who have already executed EPR and designed systems efficient enough to respond to the specific needs … without having the burden of legacy systems. So that's an area of opportunity, if you like.

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Mithu: In our first EPR focused episode, our guest and actually one of your colleagues, Bilyana Ignatova, talked about the five principles and elements of a well-designed EPR system. Despite all of the challenges that you just talked about, I can imagine that these also play a role in regions such as Asia, which are looking at different options as they attempt to establish a best practice scheme or system. I would like to go through these one by one so you can explain the relevance, if any, for Asia. So, let's start with circularity.

Annupa: Sure, I will try my best. Circularity is complex to execute, but simple to understand when it comes to Asian ways of living. The culture of reuse is strong and embedded in most societies. But if you see at the macro level, for most product and material lines, the waste path is still very linear. 

To shift to circularity is not only relevant for Asia, but I believe it is also the biggest design element for the future solutions if EPR is to be effective. Closing the loop and achieving level cycling will of course drive a change in collection, sorting, recycling … basically across the value chain. And it will all start with establishing definitions, as Bilyana perhaps talked about, to really create and make everyone understand the concept of circularity and what goes with it. So, so definitely a very strong and relevant pillar for EPR.

Mithu: And you mentioned the culture of reuse is strong. Is that also quite strong in Asia? What would you say?

Annupa: I was referring to Asia. So, the culture of reuse is very strong at a household level, traditionally. To shift the mindset will not be that hard, provided we can create the framework around it.

Mithu: Okay, perhaps that's something that the Western cultures can actually take from Asia. So, let's get back to the elements. The second element would be performance.

Annupa: Performance is interesting. You know, performance, I believe, is an important factor for all systems. Any system, it drives a few key aspects of EPR framework. You know, the clarity on roles, responsibilities, obligations, as well as the expectations from the system itself. What do you wish for it to do and achieve? 

I feel that in context of Asian countries, it is very tricky because what I observe is sometimes the overall vision is missing. Now, on top of that, bringing all stakeholders to align and agree is an equally important part of the process. So, there is a gap there currently, which makes it even more important to establish the vision and then the performance as the outcome of that. 

So, I guess with Asia it becomes a bit more complex due to the nature of political setup. I think it works in several layers. And then you also have things such as the inclusion of informal sector … or the impact to them … or the transformation of that. So those impact the performance setting per se. And therefore, I feel that it needs to be defined specifically for Asian regions.

Mithu: Okay. Now let's go on to convenience. And I can imagine that this is a really, really big one.

Annupa: Absolutely. I agree. Convenience is a very big one, especially because Asian lifestyles are very convenience driven. I don't know how many countries you've been to, but you will see a lot of online deliveries, home deliveries, so on and so forth. 

I think it is almost expected and rightly so. Convenience is also cost effective if you ask me. And we know that from our experience in deposit systems. But be mindful that convenience can translate into many solutions that may look right on paper but will not be effective. You can have multiple manual collection points, for example, but how effective will that be? So, there will have to be a part of a cultural overlay on convenience for effectiveness. Just how we understand convenience … what the outlook towards convenience is would be very important to understand. But certainly, it is one of the big factors.

Mithu: And when you say cultural outlay, are you saying convenience may look different in Japan than it would look different in Malaysia than it would look in India? Is that what you mean by this?

Annupa: Absolutely right, Mithu. So, in India, let's take informal collection as an example. You have pretty much door to door, informal collection … and that could be defined as convenience. Whereas if you go to Indonesia, you have vast banks just around every street and corner … and that could be defined as convenience. And so, it varies in most Asian regions about what convenience may look like or sound like or what the expectations of people might be.

Mithu: Okay, so now we have talked about the consumers. I would like to switch the other side and talk about the producers. Can you tell me a little bit about producer responsibility?

Annupa: Yeah, I mean, we are essentially talking about producer responsibility at the end of it. I mean, the essence of EPR, Mithu, you will agree, is based on producer responsibility. What is interesting is that we are observing that there is a shift from, you know, funding these schemes to actually playing a role in these schemes. 
Some of the Asian economic powerhouses are leaning on their experience … the experience of the producers. And they're actually asking them to lead the way. Singapore is an example, India is an example. Indonesia is asking the producers to come together and lead the way. So, there is definitely a shift in this becoming a bit more. I would say it is in its evolutionary phase and the role of producers is certainly growing bigger in EPR frameworks.

Mithu: Now let's look at the last one, which is an interesting one … I think … especially for Asia, and that would be system integrity. I think consumers really have to trust the system to take part. What are your thoughts here?

Annupa : Absolutely. Trust is a huge challenge in Asia for a variety of reasons. It could be lack of trust in political systems or agendas, or just distrust in overall systems. In the existing systems I mean, not the new ones. So, I feel that at the moment there is a big gap in the existing systems … they are fragmented and unreliable. Enough importance cannot be laid on the fact that the portability, auditability, and transparency of this scheme will happen … because that's the only thing that will allow the real shift, the real transformation. 

It's not just for the consumers to believe in the systems, but also at all levels of the stakeholders. Especially also for producers to believe that the money and the distribution of it, for example, is happening in a transparent and right manner, if you like. And this this is a tough thing to achieve, but I believe it's doable. I believe it's definitely doable with support of policy and framework.

Mithu: I would say it has to be doable. So, which one of these elements or principles that we have just spoken about, circularity, performance, convenience, producer responsibility, and system integrity is the most important? Along the lines of we've got to get this right.

Annupa: I mean, I think I perhaps answered your question already. I think the start of the journey is with circularity of materials … or with kicking off the principle of circularity of materials. Creating awareness at all stakeholder levels and then pushing through it, because that will then define the entire downstream process. So, I would lay a strong emphasis on that. 

Mithu: Okay. So, let's assume that this will be gotten right as new schemes are established. What might regions with established systems learn?

Annupa: It's a difficult question to answer, but I'll try. I guess the process of EPR and circularity has been an organic process in its own right. Even the most mature systems are evolving and adapting to new product designs or will have to and so on. 

There are already movements in talks in some region where there is focus on ensuring, you know, what the next system can take into account. So, some of these existing factors and make the existing systems more robust. For example, there are discussions around recycling infrastructure now in Indonesia to respond to the circularity needs of the nation already. But I wouldn't say that all framework conditions have been established yet. 

But certainly if we get this right, the established systems in countries like Japan and Korea can definitely strengthen their EPR systems for sure.

Mithu: Let's take a look at systems that are not quite as established or sophisticated. Do they have the opportunity to leapfrog over more developed or established nations?

Annupa: I think it's a great question. I think it's a great ambition. I think there is a huge drive to become recycling hubs. There's a great hunger for driving green investments and, you know, driving green economy coupled with the desire to achieve great environmental outcomes. Now, these nations, I believe, stand a very big chance of becoming quite the showcase examples of modern, sustainable systems. 

Now, let me give you an example. The Indonesian government, you might know, is looking at designing the new capital. And they are looking at making it a sustainable city from the get-go. There are many agencies involved and this is quite an exciting project. So, we are also playing a little bit of a role in this. 

Then there are examples from countries like India where there are cities such as Indore, which has transformed to almost an ideal collection, sorting system in its own right. And they are looking at aiming to replicate and better it in other cities. 

In addition, big waste companies Veolia and Sumitomo and DataPax  have announced their intentions to invest or already have invested in large recycling plants. So, on top of that, they have the advantage to learn from the Western world and so they can respond much faster. I definitely believe that the timing is quite right for them to have a kick start and then leapfrog more developed nations, as you as you said.

Mithu: That sounds very promising. Thank you. One last question, Annupa. We both know that there tends to be more men in the field than women. Perhaps even that's more the case in Asia. I don't know. Next month, the world will once again celebrate Girls Day, which encourages more girls to look at so-called MINT careers, among other focuses of theirs. How would you encourage girls who might be considering a career in this direction?

Annupa: I'd say close to my heart. I grew up in a family of girls, and we were encouraged. We were encouraged to follow our heart, encouraged to follow our passion. And I'm glad I have enjoyed every bit of it, my own journey. 

But it is true that my experience of working in the waste and environment industry is that I've observed that, traditionally, it has seen more men in this profession than women, especially in Asia. Having said that, I have come across many inspiring women leaders in this space. Agents of change, bold, strong, including our own new CEO. So, there is no reason why young women who are passionate about environment cannot find their feet in this field. You know, women inherently are nurturers. I don't think I need to say anything more.

Mithu: No, you don't. I'm glad that you followed your passion and that you are where you are and really making important change in Asia. Thank you. Annupa, it sounds like you have a lot of work ahead of you. Thanks so much for taking the time to explain what's going on in Asia when it comes to EPR.

Annupa: Thank you, Mithu. It has been a complete pleasure. I hope I was able to answer most of your questions and looking to listen to more of your podcasts.

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