Moving Plastic Wastes to Circularity: Interview with Dr. Feliks Bezati, Tristan Algera and Marko Kärkkäinen

Our planet is increasingly being used as a dumping ground for unwanted plastic, polluting the oceans and presenting a health hazard for both humans and wildlife. Thankfully, driven and committed business people across the world are finding innovative solutions to reduce the amount of plastic waste ending up in our environment.

We have recognised some of these individuals on our list of “Fairforce 100 Plastic Waste Reduction Professionals” due to the significant contributions they have made in this area. Not only that, but we also had the pleasure of interviewing three of them: Dr. Feliks Bezati, Global Sustainable Packaging Manager at Mars, Tristan Algera, the Co-founder of PackBack and Marko Kärkkäinen, Chief Commercial Officer at Clewat Oy. Their insight and expertise provide food for thought on how businesses can help alleviate the problem of plastic waste.

Thinking Circular

Having worked in the area of sustainability at different companies, Dr. Feliks Bezati is a “strong believer in the circular economy.” At Mars, his role was created one year ago in order to look at how packaging could be made circular.

To make that happen, Feliks explains, two strategic pillars needed to be revisited: design and waste management infrastructure. “We can simplify the design of our packaging to give it more chances to be recycled, but it is much harder to influence how the packaging will be collected, sorted and recycled. We rely on waste management infrastructure, but we can only improve it by working together with other companies and governments.

Tristan Algera’s brand, PackBack, presents another circular solution. Restaurants re-use PackBack containers for food deliveries over and over again, reducing the amount of plastic disposed of after a mere 30 minutes of use. Tristan tells us that “every time restaurants reuse container, they make money out of the container.” As a result, “profit and sustainability go hand in hand, which could prove to be a very good business model for the future. It is in our incentive to be as sustainable as possible” he explains.

Whilst Packback containers are made from polypropylene, their light, flexible and durable nature means that this type of plastic is ideal for the job in hand. Both Tristan and Feliks are advocates of plastic, where it is used responsibly and repeatedly. Tristan explains that “reuse is more important than using a different material. For [PackBack’s] concept, plastic is the best way.” Similarly, Feliks reasons that “plastic plays an important role in improving our daily lives but is a problem if it ends up in nature. If circular, it is a great material and it’s our role to make it happen.

Being Green is an Advantage

When asked whether or not being environmentally friendly could be considered a competitive advantage, all three of our professionals were keen to explain that this is indeed the case. Marko Kärkkäinen, CCO at cleantech water-clearing company Clewat Oy, tells us that “now, everyone has time to talk; packaging companies are open to dialogue about how we can help them and what they should do”.

Marko explains the significance of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which has already committed $1.5 billion USD to alleviate the plastic problem. “Global companies have already woken up,” he says. Eco-friendly business models are becoming increasingly embraced worldwide.

Tristan agrees that being green is a competitive advantage in his industry, too. Tristan often says to friends that he’s “never had such an easy sales conversation” than those he is having presently. He adds that “everybody wants to jump on the environmentally friendly bandwagon; everybody wants to join in.” PackBack is liaising with large organisations, supermarkets, large packaging companies and takeaways, who are all eager to shift to a green business approach. “Everybody likes us and everybody wants to help out, so for now, it’s really working out,” he says.

Feliks also believes that companies who don’t go circular “will have big to lose in the long term.” To him, operating within the circular economy is “about protecting business, managing risks and creating strategy that makes your company flourish in the long run. He adds that rather than creating minor changes which are intended to improve public relations, a larger systemic change is required. “It’s the responsibility of mass-production companies to take a “leadership role” in delivering this transition, with smaller businesses following suit.

The Challenges

Whilst going green can be considered great for both business and the environment, it’s not always plain sailing. Marko describes bottlenecks for a relatively new company as funding and lack of proof of concept despite of many research and pilot projects. Another significant obstacle for businesses with green initiatives in this area is the lack of effective infrastructure. Regarding cleaning oceans, rivers and lakes at Clewat Oy, Marko brings an example from parts of South Asia where besides recyclable plastic material in the rivers, more than 90 percent of river wastes contain organic materials or vegetations that can be delivered to bio-gas or composting plants. He indicates that “when we have built up those value chains, saving the seas or rivers goes to the next level”.

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Tristan remarks that PackBack relies on cleaning its containers so that they can be re-used, but there are “only two big cleaning facilities in the Netherlands and not many in Europe at all.

This is significant as drying plastic is a complex process. As a result, Tristan explains that it has been “difficult to scale the business up quickly.

Additionally, Feliks tells us that building infrastructure can be time-consuming, taking “3 to 5 years just to prepare the land, plant and machinery for recycling”. The collection, sorting and recycling of packaging is also complicated because it is country dependant. “What we are missing today is scale and better collaboration with governments and municipalities,” Feliks explains. He adds that this is particularly true within developing economies. “Many of those countries across the world severely lack in infrastructure. There, we do not even talk about recycling, we talk about getting the waste out of nature. We need waste management infrastructure urgently in those areas, especially considering future pace of growth and consumption.

Moving Forward and Collaboration

In order to overcome hurdles in plastic reduction, Marko tells us that “collaboration is the key.

Although Clewat Oy is a commercial business, he hopes to foster partnerships with non-profits such as the Ocean Cleanup. He adds: “one company can do only a small effort, but if you are joined together you can do a lot.” Being involved in many beach cleaning projects worldwide, Marko explains that “if we build up the value chain and companies, governments and people work together, we can pool research materials and begin recycling an industrial amount of plastic waste”.

Similarly, Feliks stresses the importance of collaboration.

As brand owners, he says, “we are the ones who are blamed for plastic waste but unfortunately, we aren’t the only ones in this value chain. We need to collaborate across the whole value chain.” Although he believes that large companies have a responsibility to put the “right” product into the market, collaboration with a range of entities is necessary to make a systemic positive impact.

Feliks also hopes that in 10 to 20 years, positions like his will exist in every company. “All my roles were newly created as these types of positions didn’t exist before,” he points out. Such jobs are important as they help companies understand the entire life cycle of packaging and assess the business and environmental risks. Feliks asserts that “it’s extremely important to have this big picture in mind.” By analysing the bigger picture, companies can help develop the value chain and work together to deliver a positive, systemic and lasting change.

Likewise, to Tristan, “connecting all parties” in the network is important to make re-use efficient and widespread. He also hopes to facilitate the development of infrastructure in order to shift to re-use on a larger scale. With effective collaboration and the right machinery, PackBack’s operations have the potential to be replicated for different products and services all over the world. That could prevent a whole lot of plastic from being wasted.

Having an Impact

Markko, as being a diver who sees the underwater world and coral reefs reminds us to put efforts for keeping the beauty of nature. He indicates that we can do more things every day as likewise he uses public transportation and sustainable brands. He also added that “I’ve been like an influencer with my family and friends towards sustainability”.  

Feliks is proud of changing the mindset of companies he was involved with and creating a network of circular ambassadors. Coming from a scientific background and believing in systemic change which requires educating companies and individuals, Feliks says that “I’ll do my part in the system, and I try to educate my network and friends about recycling and responsible choices they can make.

Tristan tells us that founding PackBack was the best decision he’s made in his life and career. “Now, every day I do something that I’m really happy with; every hour I put in I hope that I’m making the world a little bit better. That’s also an incentive to work really hard and to be very passionate about what I’m doing.

Thanks to the impact-driven and sustainable business solutions that our three professionals are carrying out to protect the planet Earth. Their inspiring words make us rethink to take action today for adapting our businesses or lifestyles to reduce plastic waste. As Tristan once asked himself:

Do we want to be the generation that turned our head away and thought this problem will solve itself, or be the generation that started something?