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Circular Economy: Imagining a Plastic-Free World

By Patricia Lee


Introduction

There was a time when not a single plastic bottle on the planet could be found. Today it is hard to imagine a world without plastics. Used in numerous sectors of the economy and daily life, they enabled innovation and promoted the development of multiple products and solutions that contributed to the development of modern society. Nevertheless, with a global population of around 7.5 billion (US Census Bureau, 2019) the planet is no longer able to sustain an increase of plastic production sourced from fossil fuels, containing harmful chemicals, expensive to produce and unable to break down. World data (2019) shows that in 1950s the world produced 2 million tonnes of plastic per year, ever since, the evolution of annual global plastic production has increased nearly 200% to 381 million tonnes in 2015. Roland Geyer et al. (2017) calculated the total volume of all plastic ever produced at 8.3 billion tonnes. For context, this is roughly equivalent to the weight of 80 million blue whales or 1 billion elephants.


The European Commission (2018) has stated that the increasing production and distribution of plastics in developed and developing countries is projected to double by 2035 and, as stated by Barra and Leonard (2018) it is projected to almost quadruple by 2050. Clearly, there is an urgent need to tackle the challenge of plastics pollution by increasing efforts, encouraging global cooperation and particularly shifting to a more sustainable economic model. The good news is that, it is happening.


The circular economy represents a contemporary sustainable business model which can be adopted to tackle this challenge. It is an alternative approach which aims to incorporate the economic activities, the environment and human wellbeing in a more sustainable way. Furthermore, though relatively new and still developing, the circular economy model has the potential to transform the negative impact on the climate and environment by improving product competitiveness, resource efficiency and most importantly, waste minimisation.

In this paper, I aim to highlight the benefits of a transition to a more regenerative and restorative economic system such as the circular economy model and how it is essential to effectively replace the throwaway culture supported by a linear economy. Firstly, I will provide the reader with a brief background of the plastics economy and its multiple environmental impacts. Secondly, the concept of linear and circular economy will be explored and discussed. Finally, a conclusion will be drawn providing links for research and best practice.


We live in a plastic world

When the Industrial Revolution began in 18th century Britain, the world saw the nature of their economies transformed within a period of less than a hundred years. In the 1860s an American inventor, John W. Hyatt developed the first synthetic plastics by treating cellulose (ACS, 2019). An organic material, plastic is made of natural products such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and crude oil; its versatility and numerous properties took the world by surprise. Plastics are inexpensive, lightweight, strong and resistant and therefore they quickly replaced scarce materials such as ivory and tortoiseshell used then for the production of billiards and combs. Henceforth, the 19th century was marked by the manufacture of new products made of modified colloids and natural polymers and by the 20th century, the global plastics industry and its synthetic materials had radically transformed society and revolutionised consumerism.


As plastics became part of every business, their usage exploded; becoming almost indispensable for humans. Used for packaging, building and construction, mobility and transport, electronics, agriculture, healthcare and energy applications and more (Plastics Europe, 2019) plastics now pose a number of environmental threats. Even when the general belief is that plastics can be recycled, there remain some procedural limitations. This idea has been taken further by Turner (2018) who states that ‘technological and economic constraints and the presence of harmful additives … preclude the recycling of many products”. Moreover, plastics recycling practices fluctuated over time, with large scale recycling not starting until the mid-seventies and decreasing in the 90s as environmental concerns arose (ed. Leidner 1998).


Figure 1. Global plastic waste by disposal (Our World in Data, 2018)

Figure 2. Estimated plastic produced to date (Science Magazine, 2017)

Another key point worth considering is each country’s own capability to effectively manage the consumption and disposal of its waste, the policies and legislation, the public environmental awareness, etc. The exploitative scientific and technological innovations of the time disregarded the environment, depleting the planet’s resources. People relied on a ‘new’ source of energy from burned fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. Furthermore, the ‘take-make-dispose’ system became the new normal for societies and industries in most developed nations, the linear economic model where obtaining resources from the ground, using them for making products and discarding them when no longer wanted or needed proved to be successful (Womack et al. 1990, Sariatli 2017).



The continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend combined with the loss of balance between humanity and the planet, make the integration of environment and development an imperative necessity. The European Commission (2018) concurs with the view that the uneven distribution of wealth, the concentration of consumerism in developed countries, the disproportionate and excessive level of waste output and an unsustainable resource exploitation are the fundamental challenges which are a consequence of the linear economic model.


As stated by Payne et al. (2019) the linear economy contributes significantly to the plastic waste crisis from an environmental and economic perspective as it is still based in the extraction, production and discarding of synthetic products. Plastics have created the perfect environmental crisis producing 6.3 billion tonnes of waste in a post-World War II generation (Nature Communications, 2018). Hence, the urgency for the polymer industry to evolve, to shift from a single-use and disposable plastics model to one instead focused on regaining the product value whilst simultaneously reducing waste.



Figure 3. Flow diagram of linear economic model (The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016).

According to the World Economic Forum (2016) the use of plastics is expected to double in the next 20 years, the production increasing from 15 million tonnes to 311 million tonnes within only 50 years. Thus, producers, recyclers, retailers and consumers face multiple challenges and addressing them could lead to new opportunities for innovation. As stated by Calleja (2019), rethinking and improving the production, use and consumption of plastics is crucial to achieving global sustainability strategies and adhering to commitments.


The Circular Economy

One of the most promising emerging strategies to address a more sustainable economic model has been the concept of circular economy (CE). This concept has been explored in academic literature since the late 1960s but has only recently gained more relevance since entering the political and environmental agenda (de Jesus, Mendoça, 2018). One view expressed by Sariatli (2017) is that the term circular economy was first introduced by Pearce and Turner (1990) who described “a closed system of economy-environment interactions”. Nonetheless, the origin of the term circular economy is still debated. There are multiple definitions behind the term, with different authors providing a range of meanings and associations as well as varied theories regarding the place and time the term was generated.


Figure 4. Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s infographic representing the endless possibilities to create a thriving economy throughout the circular economy (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2018)

Korhonen et al. (2017) stated that the circular economy is an important mechanism to promote the sustainable development of industrial production from “… a linear and wasteful to cyclical, restorative, reproductive and smart physical flow structures.” Another interesting claim is by Robèrt (1991) and Mathews and Tan (2011, p. 436) who discussed the complications of the linear processing of material and suggested a circular economy where resources were processed in cycles, referring to a ‘closed-loop’ economy or circular economy. Murray, Skene and Haynes (2017) study multiple conceptualisations and definitions attributed to the circular economy and propose a revised definition: “an economic model wherein planning, resourcing, procurement, production and reprocessing are designed and managed, as both process and output, to maximize ecosystem functioning and human well-being” (pp. 369). In other words, a circular economy gives the manufacturers the responsibility of redesigning products, components and materials to make them reusable, adding, recreating and preserving their value. For example, the recycling of small and disregarded pieces of plastic such as cell phones, glass, airline seats, handbags, tires, used plastic cartridges and toners can be re-used to give life to new plastic products. Equally, using raw materials and the natural capital produced by them makes the optimisation of renewable resources and sustainability more achievable (Payne et al. 2019).


This idea has been extended by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation - a United Kingdom-based charitable organisation focused on transforming the global economy - which defines the circular economy as a ‘new way to design, make and use items within planetary boundaries’ while promoting ‘The New Plastics Economy’ initiative (EMF, 2016). Also, it has been advised that an appropriate adoption and implementation of the circular economy model could potentially reduce consumption of new materials by 32% within 15 years, and by 53% by 2050. This is supported by the World Economic Forum (2016) who describes CE as an economy aiming to optimise production through a cycle of disassembling and reuse minimising energy and labour costs. In addition, Payne et al. (2019) argue that the circular economy model is based on 3 key principles: 1) Reducing plastic waste and pollution through product design, 2) Retaining resources and products in use and 3) Regenerating and preserving natural systems. Correspondingly, these principles would enhance not only the economic performance within the supply network but also more importantly, would reduce plastic waste.



Figure 5. From a linear to a circular economy (Government of the Netherlands, 2019).

Granted that the circular economy has the potential of contributing to a more sustainable production-consumption culture and a more sustainable future, the implications of re-aligning the current economic model, society and environment remain challenging. Korhonen et al. (2017) place an emphasis on six main challenges in the application of CE, such as the limits of social and cultural definitions, government and management, path-dependency, the physical scale of the economy, system boundary as well as thermodynamic limits.


Nonetheless, the concept of circular economy remains a viable, sustainable option that presents more opportunities for the global economy by improving plastic products and the efficiency of plastic waste management. More research, scientific investment, environmental education, and better evaluation of the legislation is needed if we want to effectively achieve sustainable development whilst successfully reaching the 2030 sustainable development goals.


Conclusion

Today, plastics remain one of the most innovative and widely utilised materials the world has ever seen. Plastic waste is however so omnipresent that it is now being proposed as a geological indicator of the Anthropocene era (Zalasiweicz et al. 2016). Almost 70 years after the industrial production of plastics started, billions of tons of plastic have been manufactured and shaped into different materials. Consequently, plastics are now found almost everywhere in the planet and it is still unclear how long it will take for it to completely disintegrate. It has been argued that half the plastic ever manufactured has been made only in the past 13 years and some estimate that plastics biodegrade in a range from 450 years to never (Parker, 2019).


The aforementioned plastics waste crisis makes the shift towards a circular economy model essential and indispensable. The circular economy model is so far the most promising emerging strategy with the aim of achieving more sustainable consumption and production – which is one of the 17 Global Goals in the 2030 United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development – while simultaneously maintaining material value. There is a clear opportunity to enhance the plastics industry whilst minimising its expensive and environmentally harmful waste.


As shown above, the shift towards a more sustainable economic model will encounter various challenging obstacles before finding worldwide adoption. Nevertheless, the transition from the linear to the circular economy is attainable as the necessary production and consumption alterations prove to become reasonable. The opportunities CE presents for the economy, industry and environment cannot be overlooked. Producers and consumers need to actively inspire and be inspired to re-think, re-design and transform the way our economy works by adopting the principles of the circular economy. The significance of this promising economic model navigates these challenges by following a well-defined path to achieve sustainable development, preventing the depletion of resources, and promoting a regenerative production and consumption cycle.


List of Recommended Material

Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy 2018. Available from: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=COM:2018:28:FIN

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/

Plastic Infographics

https://www.connect4climate.org/infographics/plastic-oceans

National Geographic, Planet or Plastic?

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-waste-pollution-trash-crisis/#close

Our World in Data, Plastic Pollution

https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution#global-plastic-production


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