Supporting a
circular economy

A photo UQ graduate Karina Cady.

UQ graduate Karina Cady.

UQ graduate Karina Cady.

By Zoe McDonald

Karina Cady (Bachelor of Environmental Management, '05) is going about investment in a different way – for her and her team in Singapore, it’s not just about profit: it’s about investing in our future as a people and as a planet.

Karina Cady was 15 when she decided she was going to work in sustainable development.

Now, she’s the Operations and Investment Director at Circulate Capital, a Singapore-based investment management firm dedicated to tackling the ocean plastic crisis and advancing the circular economy – a system that aims to reduce waste and increase sustainability in production, manufacturing, and recycling – by financing those creating the solutions.

Cady invests with businesses who champion this approach – like Lucro, a homegrown manufacturer in Mumbai specialising in recycling difficult-to-manage flexible plastics, and Tridi Oasis, a startup operating just outside of Jakarta that recycles PET bottles to manufacture circular packaging and textiles.

“We focus on preventing mismanaged plastic waste by investing in start-ups and SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] across the plastic value chain to reduce plastic pollution in South and South-East Asia, because these regions disproportionately contribute to the ocean plastic pollution,” Cady said.

“That’s primarily due to the lack of suitable waste infrastructure to be able to manage the problem.

“So, we seek to catalyse capital to grow these local companies – they’re really at the frontline of being able to advance the circular economy, but institutional investors are currently not enabled to fund these solutions at scale."

An image of workers at Tridi Oasis, near Jakarta.

Workers at Tridi Oasis, near Jakarta. Image: PT Tridi Oasis Group

Workers at Tridi Oasis, near Jakarta. Image: PT Tridi Oasis Group

Circulate Capital finances scale solutions through Catalytic Capital, a new, blended financing mechanism to demonstrate investment viability to facilitate the allocation of public and private sources of capital and divert plastic from the environment.

Like for many organisations, the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on some of the issues in the recycling industry.

“We conducted a survey early in the pandemic with over 100 actors in the recycling value chain across South and South-East Asia, ranging from individual waste pickers to their union representatives and junk shop owners, aggregators, recyclers and buyers," Cady said.

“It was clear that the severe disruptions occurring across the value chain were both worsening existing vulnerabilities with current waste-management systems and exposing new ones.

“This was particularly true in the informal sector, who are often some of the most vulnerable in their communities – their entire income was cut off. Many of these people sold every possession they had to get food and essentials.

“As investors, it strengthened our resolve that now is the time to invest; now is not the time to wait.

"We need to invest more, and faster, in the recycling value chain, as this is going to help avert the crisis and build back a stronger, better industry for the long term.”

Karina grew up in the thick rainforest of remote Eastern Indonesia surrounded by industry – in particular, mining.

“One thing I faced from a young age was looking at the environmental impact from some of those mining operations,” she said.

“I remember seeing that as destructive and heartbreaking as a lot of those practices were, I also understood why the minerals were being mined, and I just kept thinking, 'surely there’s a better way to do this'."

She credits her parents for her sense of purpose and drive.

“My parents were both very active in mobilising the community and human rights advocacy in their own space; they really instilled in my brother and me the idea that although not everyone needs to be seeking to change the world or have huge goals, you should seek to influence the community around you," she said.

“Whatever fits for you – whether that’s at the local, regional or global scale – you need to ask, how do you give back and grow?"

By her mid-teens, Cady was already set on how she would give back and drive change – she just needed to figure out how to get there.

“I was quite driven by around 15 or 16. I knew I wanted to work in sustainable development, I wanted to go to university in Australia, and I wanted something that had a more practical offering,” she said.

Cady first learnt of UQ through her father’s peacekeeping work for INTERFET (International Force East Timor), whose advisors were UQ alumni.

“I chose UQ because it taught sustainability with a balanced lens looking at social, economic and environmental factors."

A lush rainforest in Indonesia with a small waterfall

For Cady, the practical focus offered at UQ has been hugely important throughout her career.

“Even today, I still refer back to the different models and theories that I learnt in uni – I don’t think I could have ever anticipated that as a student," Cady said.

“Getting exposure to the working groups and industry partnerships UQ had when I was a student – like with the UN Environment Programme Cleaner Production Working Group – was invaluable.”

“I think now, mentoring different STEM graduates, I see that there’s a very distinct difference between the programs with strong industrial placements – real world applications – and the ability of those graduates to be ready to transition into high-demand roles, which a lot of environmental and sustainable development roles are."

Rubbish washed up on a white beach, including a coca cola can, old fishing net and other miscellaneous decaying plastics.

Image: Unsplash/Brian Yurasits

Image: Unsplash/Brian Yurasits

When asked what leaders can do to ensure the sustainability of our planet, Cady has one main recommendation.

“In one word: collaborate,” she said.

“It’s about how we’re tackling inequality, and to me, that was the fundamental draw to why I believe in sustainable development.

“I know we’re only going to get there if we act in cooperation and not just in competition; I do think that competition is important, but if we’re not willing to cooperate and collaborate with each other, we’re not going to progress.

“We’re in a critical window to decarbonise by 2050. My call would be to those who believe in sustainable development – if you believe in solidarity, if you believe in justice – you cannot stay silent.

“You need to speak out, and you need to collaborate.”

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