A Circular Economy

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The problem of plastic pollution has been gaining more attention lately and more and more people have come to realize that recycling will just not be enough to stop or even reduce the enormous amounts of plastics entering the environment. The problem of plastic pollution starts long before it reaches our oceans, rivers and beaches. Too many barrels of oil are turned into plastic, and plastic packaging is designed without fully considering what happens to it after it’s used. As well as the environmental damage, the financial loss is vast. Globally, plastic waste has an estimated cost of USD80 billion to USD120 billion a year.

Around the world there have been initiatives of investment and innovation, as well as community-led efforts, to clean up plastic pollution. Although cleaning up is vital, it does not stop the tide of plastic entering the oceans each year. We must go to the source of the problem to be able to find a solution. This is where the circular economy comes into play. A circular economy is an economic system where products and services are traded in closed loops or ‘cycles’. It is an economy which is regenerative by design (material flows are captured and re-used, and biological flows are designed to re-enter and replenish nature safely), with the aim to retain as much value as possible of products, parts and materials. In this way, a system is created that allows for the long life, optimal reuse, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling of products and materials.

It represents a systemic shift that builds long-term resilience, generates business and economic opportunities, and provides environmental and societal benefits. All actors in the cycle are part of a network in which the actions of one actor impact other actors. A circular economy consists of closed cycles, like natural ecosystems. Toxic substances are eliminated and there is no waste because all residual streams are valuable as a resource and products and materials are being reused and repaired. 

A circular economy is based on three principles: design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems. There are two types of cycles in a circular economy: technical cycles and biological cycles. In a technical cycle products, components and materials are recovered and restored through reuse, repair, remanufacture or recycling. In a biological cycle food and biologically-based materials, such as cotton and wood are designed to feed back into the system through composting and anaerobic digestion. In this cycle consumption occurs.

On January 21 the Ellen McArthur Foundation launched, in collaboration with the United Nations Environment program, the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. With more than 250 signatories, from producers, brands and retailers, to investors, recyclers, governments and NGOs, the Global Commitment aims to build a circular economy for plastic. Central to the commitment, and to dealing with this pollution crisis, is the need to eliminate the plastic we don’t need: the single-use straws, cutlery and cups, the unnecessary packaging and items that can be replaced with better alternatives. Innovation is critical, to ensure that the plastic we do need can be safely reused, recycled or composted: circulated in the system so that it never becomes pollution. The task of the governments is to put in place the necessary policies and enabling conditions. “There will be full transparency, with signatories required to report annually and publicly on the progress made toward reaching their targets. If signatories fail to report, their signatory status can be revoked. Targets will be reviewed every 18 months, and become increasingly ambitious over the coming years, “ says Dame Ellen McArthur, founder of the Ellen McArthur Foundation.

At the same time, an alliance of global companies from the plastics and consumer goods value chain has launched a new organization to further solutions to eliminate plastic waste in the environment. The Alliance to End plastic Waste (AEWP), which currently has 30 member companies that make, use, sell, process, collect, and recycle plastics. They have committed to over USD1 billion over the next five years to help end plastic waste in the environment. The Alliance will develop and bring to scale solutions that will minimize and manage plastic waste and promote solutions for used plastics by helping to enable a circular economy. 

So, it is quite interesting to say the least that most of the founding companies are investing in growing plastic production in the coming decade. Shell for example is building a multibillion-dollar plant in Pennsylvania, using shale gas as its fuel to produce 1.6m tonnes of polyethylene (the world’s most common plastic) each year. Another founding firm is ExxonMobil that is building a new polyethylene (PET) production line at its plant in Mont Belvieu, Texas, to increase plastic production to more than 2.5m tonnes a year. When completed it will be one of the largest plastic production units in the world. Together, fossil fuel companies have invested more than USD180 billion since 2010 in new “cracking” facilities that will produce the raw material for everyday plastics for use in packaging, bottles, trays and cartons, helping to fuel a 40% rise in plastic production over the next decade. Rob Buurman, the director of the environmental NGO Recycling Netwerk, said: “It is interesting to see [the plastics industry] finally acknowledge that there is a problem with their plastics. But unfortunately, this initiative does not tackle the problem at its source: the gigantic production of 400m tonnes of plastic each year. Seeing that the signatories themselves are building new factories to produce even more plastic, in a time when the European Union and the rest of the world are trying to fight plastic pollution, makes it all the more disappointing.” (for a list of the investments in plastic production, see Recycling Netwerk´s website).

A spokesman for the alliance said: “Reducing the amount of plastic required to create products while preserving the benefits people rely on and making plastics easier to recycle is definitely part of the solution. Some of the members do produce plastic, and some have announced expansions to meet the demands of a growing population. Plastic provides many critical health, safety and sustainability benefits that help improve and maintain living standards, hygiene and nutrition around the world and replacing it could, in the end, do more harm than good.” This does not take into account however that most plastics, especially PET, are used for the production of single-use packaging. So it remains to see how these companies will spend the money in the Alliance´s fund and if there will be external supervision or if the Alliance is a big greenwashing campaign for plastics. I wonder how the CEO´s of Shell and ExxonMobil and the other companies that are planning on increasing their plastics production will explain to their (grand)children that they knew there was this huge plastic problem and they decided to look the other way.

Sources

Het Groene Brein

The Huffington Post 

The Guardian 

Greener Package

Recycling Netwerk

Ellen McArthur Foundation

New Plastics Economy

Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance

More reading

Ellen McArthur Foundation. Rethinking the Future of Plastics