A circular economy is an economic system in which materials are designed to be used, not used up. Products and the systems they sit within are designed to ensure no materials are lost, no toxins are leaked, and the maximum use is achieved from every process, material, and component. If applied correctly, the circular economy benefits society, the environment, and the economy.
While polymeric materials have many benefits, there are negative consequences if they become waste or pollution. The use of plastics has increased 20 times in the past 50 years. Around 40% of plastics are used for packaging. At current rates, plastic packaging volumes are expected to more than quadruple by 2050 to 318 million tonnes per year.
Plastics are versatile materials, but the way we use them is incredibly wasteful. We take oil and gas from the earth to make plastic products that are often designed to be used only once, and then we throw them away. Millions of tonnes of plastic, worth billions of dollars, ends up in landfills, is burned, or leaked into the environment. The amount of plastic litter is growing, hurting marine ecosystems, biodiversity and potentially human health.
Much of the plastic waste currently circulating in the world’s oceans is thought to originate in just five Asian countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. A staggering 8 million tons leak into the ocean every year — and that number is rising. By 2050, if we don’t rethink its use, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (by weight) by 2050.
In 2016, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation published a report which showed that most plastic packaging is used only once, and only 14% is collected for recycling. 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth USD 80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy. In a second report published in 2017, it was shown that without fundamental redesign and innovation, about 30% of plastic packaging will never be reused or recycled.
Circular economy – public and private roles
How to design a circular economy for plastic, in which it never becomes waste or pollution? This requires a combination of redesign and innovation in business models, materials, packaging design, and recycling/reprocessing technologies. No plastic should end up in the environment through landfill or incineration. Wherever possible, the plastics we use need to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Meanwhile, single-use plastics need to be eliminated.
Converting this aspiration into a fully functioning, closed-loop system demands greater cooperation from all key actors in the value chain. Both public and private sectors have essential roles. Businesses producing and/or selling packaging have a responsibility beyond the design and use of their packaging, which includes contributing towards it being collected and reused, recycled, or composted in practice.
Today, producers of plastic and packaging have little or no incentive to consider recycling or reuse when they design products, but end-of-life now needs to be front of mind throughout product development processes. Plastics can be highly customized to meet each manufacturer’s specific requirements. This diversity complicates the recycling process.
There are industry guidelines – including those from WRAP – a climate action NGO working around the globe to tackle the causes of the climate crisis – that advise packaging manufacturers, brand owners and retailers on how to embed recyclability principles into their design processes. Such guidance includes reducing the use of colorants, labels, sleeves and adhesives to simplify the recycling process. In addition, much of the packaging we currently rely on is flexible – including crisp packets and pet food pouches – which are made from multiple materials, adhesives and coatings that cannot be easily separated and recycled.
CEFLEX – a consortium of European companies and associations representing the flexible packaging value chain – is working to develop robust design guidelines for both flexible packaging and the infrastructure used to collect, sort and recycle it.
Governments and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), too, are essential in setting up an effective collection infrastructure, facilitating self-sustaining funding mechanisms, and enabling a regulatory and policy landscape.
In October 2018, in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment was launched, uniting more than 450 organizations behind a common vision and an ambitious set of targets to address plastic waste and pollution at its source, by 2025. Signatories include companies representing over 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally, as well as governments, NGOs, universities, industry associations, investors, and other organizations. In 2019, the first annual Global Commitment progress report was published, providing an unprecedented level of transparency on how these signatories are reshaping the plastics system.
The vision for a circular economy for plastic is being implemented on the ground by a network of national and regional (cross-border) initiatives, called The Plastics Pact, a globally aligned response to plastic waste and pollution, which enables vital knowledge sharing and coordinated action. Each initiative is led by a local organization and unites governments, businesses, and citizens behind a common vision with an ambitious set of local targets.
A European Strategy for Plastics is part of the European Commission’s circular economy plan. This includes proposals to modernize EU waste legislation which were agreed in December 2017. There is provisional political agreement on new EU-wide rules to target the 10 single-use plastic products most often found on Europe’s beaches and seas, as well as lost and abandoned fishing gear.
For the period 2018-2020, the remaining years of Horizon 2020, the EU’s research and innovation framework program, about €100 million was allocated to projects directly related to the plastics strategy. This funding came on top of the €250 million already spent on plastics-related projects through Horizon 2020.
The EU-funded MultiCycle project is part of the SPIRE roadmap, part of the Horizon R&D program. It is slated to deliver substantial impacts for a more sustainable plastic processing industry. It has delivered a pilot plant that can recycle complex plastic materials.
Barriers to disposal of polymers
Poorly functioning markets for recycled plastics is one of the biggest barriers facing a circular plastics economy, presenting a challenge to improving global recycling rates. The raw feedstocks for most plastics are fossil fuels, which are currently cheaper to use than recycled materials. As such, the economics of plastic recycling are weak. While we see many companies making bold new commitments and goals for recyclability, few are thinking about their role in creating demand – that is, stimulating end markets for recycled material. To drive demand, companies must commit to using post-consumer resin (PCR) wherever possible. Using PCR will stimulate demand for the materials, creating vital end markets that make the domestic recycling stream viable.
While improving recycling is crucial, we cannot recycle our way out of the plastic issues we currently face. Wherever relevant, business models based on re-use should be preferred – these are known as an inner loop in circular economy terms. Reuse models are an economically attractive opportunity for at least 20% of plastic packaging.
Neither is compostable plastic packaging suitable in all circumstances, but rather one for specific, targeted applications. This is because an effective collection and composting infrastructure is often not in place.
Unlike mechanical recycling, which is inevitably constrained by contamination and complications arising from material separation, chemical recycling is a process by which the material is stripped down to its original chemical building blocks so that they can be built back up again into new products. Waste plastic can be used to make food-grade PET – not just from plastic bottles, but also waste recovered from oceans and even polyester textiles. For a long time, chemical recycling has often remained in the margins of public discourse about plastic waste (mostly due to a lack of investment and infrastructure), but it is currently the focus of intense innovation.
Alongside the chemical industry, consumer goods companies are heavily investing in the technology – Loop Industries, a leading innovator in this space, has signed deals with PepsiCo, L’Oréal, and Evian (a subsidiary of Danone); and Coca-Cola is a member of DEMETO’s advisory board, a consortium of partners all working to make the chemical recycling of PET a sustainable, profitable and scalable process.
Promising examples and approaches
Edible and biodegradable packaging: Ooho is edible and biodegradable packaging for beverages and condiments made from brown seaweed, a renewable natural resource. It contains the product for the period of use without the need for single-use beverage bottles, cups, and condiment sachets.
Solid products requiring no packaging: Founded in the UK in 1995, Lush now has over 850 stores worldwide. It sells a wide range of solid products across hair, body, fragrance, toothpaste, and beauty care categories. Most products are sold naked in store, meaning that packaging that was previously required to contain the product (bottle, container, tube) has been eliminated.
Packaging-free food: Apeel is a plant-derived coating for fruit and vegetables which slows water loss and oxidation. It extends shelf-life without the need for plastic packaging, such as shrink wrap on fruit and vegetables.
Own branding: In a bid to streamline the market and simplify recycling, Marks & Spencer are assessing the feasibility of making all own-brand plastic packaging from one polymer by 2022 (they have already moved from eleven polymers down to four).
Recycling sachets: Unilever’s CreoSolv process enables sachet packaging to be recycled into another generation of sachets, and residue film can be used to create other products, such as plastic pallets. It is being piloted in Indonesia, where the company sells more than half of its products in sachets. In parallel, the consumer goods giant is setting up waste collection schemes to collect sachets by working with local waste banks, governments and retailers.
A 10-point plan for managing plastics in a circular economy
- Agree which plastics can be eliminated and prepare the market to phase them out.
- Incentivize and support product design for reuse and recycling of plastics.
- Address hygiene and safety concerns to promote plastics reuse.
- Stimulate consumer adoption of plastic reuse.
- Guide and support new business models for environmental, financial, and social triple-win.
- Set up functioning collection systems.
- Strategically plan sorting and recycling facilities, in compliance with trade regulations.
- Make the recycled plastics market competitive.
- Integrate and advance decent work in the transition to a circular economy for plastics.
- Investigate environmental and socio-economic impacts of renewable material inputs for plastics.
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Towards a circular economy vol.3: accelerating the scale-up across global supply chains (2014).
- Creating a Circular Economy for Plastics
- PACE – the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy – the Plastics Program
- WRAP – Reducing the climate impact of plastic packaging
- European Commission – Plastics in a Circular Economy
- A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy
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