Surendra Patawari founded Gemini Corp in Belgium in 1989 and over the past 30 years has built it into a world leader in sourcing, inspecting, and transporting recyclable raw materials. Now Chairman of the Global Plastic Taskforce set up by Prince Charles’ Sustainable Market Initiatives, Patawari talks to Damian Stewart, Managing Partner EMEA and Asia at Human Capital, about the problems caused by global ignorance on plastic waste.
Surendra Patawari describes Gemini Corporation as the world’s largest circular economy market maker, engaged in the collection, recycling, sorting and distribution of recyclable plastics, paper, metal, and rubber. The business employs 300 people across 27 countries and manages over two million tonnes of materials annually, collecting more than 450,000 tonnes of recyclable plastics. Gemini also gives a second life to four billion pounds of rubber, metal, and paper, including 50 million tyres and a billion bottles, every year.
But proud as he is of the business he has built from scratch, Patawari says he had no idea of the scale it could reach when he started, and he remains overwhelmed by the challenge ahead.
“When I started the recycling business, truthfully I didn’t know it was such a serious business,” he says. “I just felt somebody had to remove the trash, and honestly I didn’t know the word sustainability either. That word has assumed so much more importance in the past five years.”
He has come a long way, now a board member of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership, and recently appointed Chairman of the Global Plastic Taskforce, part of the Sustainable Market Initiatives led by His Royal Highness, Prince of Wales.
“In the beginning, we just used to collect production waste and ship it to different parts of the world,” he says. “Along the way, I realised this isn’t just waste, but a resource. We persuaded people that if they were not consuming materials completely, they could give some part of them to us, and we would distribute them to others – that’s where the word circular came into action. Now, we collect material from over 60 countries, from 500 locations every month.”
Patawari has become something of a thought leader on the issue of plastic waste, bringing the first-hand experience to a problem he says is much discussed but little understood: “I strongly believe it is ignorance that is driving things in the wrong direction,” he says, pointing to the fact that most of the world is not aware that we currently generate almost a million tons of plastic waste every day. Less than 10% of that plastic waste is recycled, and ,the production of prime plastics is growing by more than 3% a year while the recycling rate is growing at less than 2%.
“If we are to believe the predictions, by 2030 we will be producing 450 million tons of plastic waste every year,” says Patawari, “and most of it we are leaving as a nice legacy for our grandchildren to take care of. At this rate, we will have 12 billion tons of plastic waste around us by 2050.”
He argues that most of us are simply not aware of the scale of the problem: “Most important of all,” he says, “despite all this talk, you would be shocked to hear from me that during the last two years the recycling rate of plastics globally has come down.”
One problem is a misunderstanding at the policymaker level, he says, which led to restrictions on plastics trade in a Basel convention that came into action from January this year. “Plastic scrap has been placed under the restrictive trade category, leading to restrictions on the movement of plastics across countries. Every contract has to be approved by the environmental authorities of both the importing and exporting countries. If you want to ship even to your neighbouring countries, you have to get all this documentation.”
Patawari adds: “It was done with good intention so that the waste from the developed world is not dumped into the developing world, but you need a minimum scale of input to be economical. The recycling factory in Nepal or Sri Lanka needs a certain quantity, and they don’t have a collection of their own, so if they are not able to get certain materials, the recycling industry will collapse in the developing world. That’s exactly what has happened.”
At the same time, the global pandemic of the past 18 months has significantly increased quantities of single-use plastics, not least in the form of masks and other personal protective equipment.
“Certainly, Covid-19 has been an eye-opener,” says Patawari. “The plastics industry saw some advantages and obviously a lot of disadvantages when it comes to recycling. First, people have realised that you cannot live without plastics; people used to compare them to tobacco or alcohol, but during Covid-19, plastics saved millions of lives. But then, at the same time, millions of masks and gowns are being thrown away everywhere. In the developing world, where more than two billion people have no access to waste collection systems, that waste is just laying around with the rest of the land-based plastic pollution.”
The low oil prices that accompanied Covid-19 also made the production of virgin plastic far cheaper, leading to an uptick in production, while a decision by China had a further significant impact on the volume of recycling worldwide. After importing nearly half of the planet’s plastic recycling for decades, the country banned the import of plastic waste in 2017. “It was stupid of us, but all roads had been leading to China until then,” says Patawari. “The industry was so dependent on one market. In our company, we diversified quite a bit and we were extremely careful, but the moment China stopped there was chaos in the market. You can’t find a replacement for such a big market overnight. Indonesia, Malaysia, and India took in more, and Turkey quite a lot. But as of last month, Turkey is now also banning the import of plastic waste.”
UK plastic exports to Turkey have increased from 12,000 tonnes in 2016 to 210,000 tonnes in 2020, about 30% of the UK’s plastic waste exports. “Now, Europe is going to have a much bigger problem,” says Patawari.
The key to unlocking the plastics problem lies not in the recycling industry, he argues, but in the collection. “In Mumbai, we have difficulty collecting 200 tonnes a month for recycling,” he says. “My colleagues in Belgium laugh at that; they are recycling those volumes in an hour. But that’s the challenge we face – you simply don’t have the collection taking place.”
He adds: “That’s why Prince Charles has asked me to chair his task force on plastics, because I made a point of saying it’s not the recycling industry that needs investment, it’s the collection industry. We need to develop the infrastructure for the collection of waste. That’s what the Prince was interested in, and why he gave me the responsibility. My main mission and objective areare going to be letting the world know that it’s not recycling we need to address, but the collection, particularly in emerging markets.”
Gemini has started a social project in India, now a fully-fledged business, where it has pioneered small mini recycling plants at collection centres. The waste-pickers get their collected materials, and they are segregated, ground and baled at the centres before the material is reprocessed into granules and used to make new final products. “We told the waste pickers, you cannot use child labour, and you can keep the machine after three years of supplying us with 20 tonnes every month,” says Patawari. “The system is working extremely well – they are happy, and their productivity has increased tremendously.”
The next stage is scaling up, which he says is about taking baby steps. There are 11 million waste pickers in India, but one big machine is not the answer, because the infrastructure just isn’t in place. Instead, Gemini now has 25 collection centres, improving the lives of thousands and demonstrating a perfect partnership between people, planet, plastics, and ultimately profits. “In Gemini, we believe in sharing,” he says. “If we are making money in Africa or the Middle East, we like to share with them. We share with the countries where we work and where our waste is generated.” The business has recently adopted 12 villages in India, meeting all their medical needs, planting trees, and building two schools.
In addition to addressing the collection, the solution to the plastic problem lies in taxation, Patawari argues: “For plastic recycling to be successful, we have to look at the external costs, and that’s the costs our future generations have to pay. At the moment in the linear world of production, people include only direct and present costs in their calculation of the costs for producing any plastic item. We need to include the cost of collection and recycling in that, right now. Making people accountable, either at the point of processing or the point of production, is the only way.”
He adds: “One very important point to highlight is that the more paper scrap we collect, the more steel scrap we collect, the better it is for the steel and paper industry. But the more plastic scrap we collect, that’s not good for the primary producers – their interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of the recycling industry. Someone has to be accountable to make sure there is adequate funding, and a dimension is paid on every item of plastic consumed.”
Gemini’s business model works on the concept of circularity, collecting plastic waste from producers, reprocessing it, and supplying the reprocessed output as finished products to producers. That helps manufacturers and brand owners fulfil their extended responsibilities across the value chain, but traceability is key.
“There are core things you have to address, and the first is traceability and transparency around where the material is going and where it is ending up,” says Patawari. “In the beginning, when we started the business, there was no classification and no legal framework. But we knew that traceability was the most important thing and that’s why we used to invite the environment authorities of the developed world over to the destinations where we were shipping the materials. That’s the foundation of Gemini.”
Technology will have a role to play in that traceability going forward, and Gemini has already developed its own proprietary tech app to satisfy producers that there is transparency around their waste. “We have been toying with ideas of blockchain for putting a bit more concrete signage on the waste,” says Patawari, “but I think that’s going to be five or ten years down the line. We are always looking ahead though; we work across five continents, so we have to make sure our technology is never behind the rest of the world.”
For now, Gemini’s mission is to eliminate ignorance about plastics, within the general public, within authorities, and across the entire value chain.
Crucially, “we have to reduce the evil perception we are creating about plastics,” says Patawari. “The most important thing I tell the whole world is that you cannot find a business more interesting than recycling and sustainability. There’s a great partnership to be had between plastic, people, the planet and eventually profit. I would encourage more and more people into this profession, not only for the financial rewards, but because we are responsible for this earth, and we need to make sure we leave it in a better place.”
That’s a business plan that’s hard to argue with.