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Can plastics become part of the circular economy?

  • by JW

“We must change how we design and use plastics as we cannot simply recycle or reduce our way out of this crisis.” [Ellen MacArthur Foundation]


Philippa Nuttall writing in the FT this week suggests that plastics prove a tough target for circular treatment:

Today’s enlightened consumers may shun plastic straws and avoid plastic bags — indeed, legislators give them no choice in many jurisdictions — but they are swimming against a mighty tide. Plastic’s cheapness, lightness and versatility make it economically irresistible, even though the environmental downsides are severe.

According to the OECD, global plastic production reached 460mn tonnes in 2019. Of that, three-quarters ended up as waste — with most going into landfill, but 22mn tonnes leaking into the environment, including bodies of water. “Every day, the equivalent of over 2,000 garbage trucks full of plastic is dumped into our oceans, rivers and lakes,” said António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, in June 2023.

The circular economy, insist politicians and businesses, is the solution: a system, in the words of campaigning organisation the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “where materials never become waste and nature is regenerated”. Bringing that about will mean, it says, producing less plastic, and making sure that what is produced is reusable and recyclable — goals that several global initiatives, notably a proposed UN treaty, are trying to achieve.

What balance to strike between them, however, is hotly contested, with significant technical challenges also hindering progress...

The Bantar Gebang landfill near Jakarta. The OECD estimates that the world produces over 350mn tonnes of plastic waste a year. The “garbage mountains” on the outskirts of Jakarta attract researchers. Is a giant landfill a source of pollution?

“Most countries, when they talk about a circular economy, just mean recycling,” argues Vito Buonsante, a Brussels-based environmental health lawyer. “If the plastics industry were to try to become truly circular, it would need to follow resource efficiency principles, whereby, like compost from food waste replacing fertilisers, something is put back into the economy that saves virgin materials, energy and money.” But it is, he says, “much more difficult” to make the economic case for resource efficiency in the plastics industry: “The fossil fuels from which plastics are produced continue to be subsidised, and recycling plastics is expensive given the number of different products on the market.”

Carsten Wachholz, global plastics treaty co-lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, agrees that systemic change is needed — and soon. We must change how we design and use plastics as we cannot simply recycle or reduce our way out of this crisis,” he says. “Now is the time for tougher policy and accelerated business action.”

There is indeed a UN treaty to end plastic pollution being negotiated, but scientists remain unimpressed, as the plastic treaty talks show ‘zero ambition’ for protecting human health; and environmentalists fear Big Oil influence at UN talks will thwart progress towards reaching an effective Global Plastics Treaty. Meanwhile, there is the notion of ‘plastic credits’ to help to clear plastic pollution from our oceans, but experts warn they could also lead to greenwashing.

There are several issues:

Firstly, most plastic can’t be recycled: “with only 9% of annual plastic waste recycled, the myth that we can recycle our way out of a mounting plastic pollution crisis doesn’t add up”.

Then there is the reality that the environmental impact of plastics is not just about oceans: “plastics are also responsible for 3.4% of global greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, producing 1.8bn tonnes in 2019, according to the OECD, which forecasts this will more than double to 4.3bn tonnes by 2060.”

The conclusion must be that plastic is ‘inherently incompatible’ with the circular economy: the current way of handing plastics is “distracting attention from the need for massive reductions in global plastic production – and shifting the burden of dealing with plastic waste away from themselves as the producers and onto the public”.

Finally, the plastics industry is pushing for creating a Circular Economy for plastics – and their approach might be a way forward: “we need to stop thinking of plastic as ‘waste,’ but as a renewable resource that needs to be disposed of correctly.”

That is ‘renew’ and not ‘recycle’…