How do we prevent plastic waste from doubling in 20 years?
It is unthinkable to live in a world without plastic. Every day we use products made from plastic. Did you know that a large portion of the plastic is used only once before it is thrown away? If we don’t change this, by 2025 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. If we want to solve this problem, we will have to rethink our plastic system. In this blog a few considerations about the solution.
Once plastic was a natural material
It is interesting to note that the precursor to plastic is actually a natural material. As early as 1600 BC, the Mesopotamians used natural rubber for balls, tires and figurines. Man has always artificially developed materials with benefits that cannot be found in natural materials. This is also the case with plastic, or synthetic rubber made from petroleum. Since the invention of artificial plastic some hundred years ago, we have developed an enormous number of products with this material and it has become an indispensable part of our society.
How plastic became the symbol of environmental pollution
In recent years, plastic has gotten a bad reputation and that is partly correct. Plastic is made from petroleum and petroleum is not inexhaustible. In addition, the current low oil price stimulates the production of new ‘virgin’ plastic and it discourages business to look for other resources. The main problem with plastic, however, has to do with the way we use it. In 1997, Captain Charles Moore discovered a floating plastic dump in our ocean: the plastic soup. From that moment, plastic turned into a symbol for environmental pollution and we have been eagerly looking for solutions ever since.
Plastic: from pollution to sustainable material
We cannot make it more beautiful than it is. Plastic is currently an environmental problem. Plastic production has grown enormously in 50 years, from 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 million tons in 2014. Plastic production is expected to double in the next twenty years, as plastic will be used in many more applications. If we do not adjust our approach to plastic, it will have major consequences for nature and therefore also for humans. However, in essence plastic is not a bad material. Plastic is very strong and lasts a very long time, which actually makes it a durable material. The problem is that we use the majority of the plastics once before throwing it away. Only a small part of the plastic is recycled, which results in plastic accumulating in the environment. If we want to reduce the plastic waste mountain, we need to start treating plastic as a renewable resource instead of waste.
Towards a circular economy for plastic
Plastic has the properties to be a sustainable material, but currently we do not treat it as such. The problem is evident in the way we deal with plastic packaging. Only fifteen percent is recycled, while in theory it should be possible to recycle at least seventy percent of the plastic. How do we get to this seventy percent? By building a circular economy for plastic, or in other words a closed cycle. With a circular economy we ensure that:
- raw materials and products keep their value
- we reuse energy sources as much as possible and
- we put systems thinking at the heart
That last point is very important. In the solution to the plastic soup, a different way of thinking is key. In systems thinking you look beyond simple one-on-one relationships. Our economic system is a network in which the actions of one ‘player’ (companies, government, nature) influence other players. If you want to create a closed cycle, we will have to collaborate more and come up with solutions that change the entire system.
Why do we have so much plastic packaging?
An important step we can take for a circular economy of plastics is the redesign of the plastic packaging system. About one third of the plastic is used for packaging. Why do we recycle so little plastic packaging? Because about thirty percent of the packaging is too small or too complex to be collected and recycled. So it is not as simple as separating and recycling more waste. You might wonder why we don't just stop making plastic packaging. Is there really no alternative? Yes, currently alternatives to plastic packaging are less sustainable. Surprisingly, plastic packaging reduces food waste, uses less water and causes less CO2 emissions than alternatives.
Ideas for a circular economy from plastic
Banning plastic packaging does not solve the plastic problem. We won't get there simply by recycling more plastic. What we need are innovations across the entire plastic system. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the $ 2 million New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize in May 2017. They call on companies, scientists and designers to think together about improved materials, smart product designs and new circular business models. They propose improvements on three main points:
- ELIMINATE: Take a critical look at plastic use and distinguish plastics we really need (and can reuse) and which plastics we don't need. We can simply eliminate everything we don't need. An example of this is the use of plastic bags. Since 2016 it is prohibited to give away free plastic bags in shops and supermarkets
- CIRCULATE: Keep all the plastic we already use in a closed loop and out of the environment. Governments play an important role in making the right policy and regulations that stimulate companies to create a circular economy from plastic. Companies that produce and sell plastic have a responsibility to think beyond the design and use of their products
- INNOVATE: Invest in innovation to create effective plastic designs, processes and infrastructures so that we can reuse, recycle or compost more plastic
What is the role of the consumer in a circular system?
Few will disagree with the idea of a circular economy for plastic. What is difficult about the circular economy is that it is a fundamentally different way of dealing with plastic within a system. How can you contribute to this as an individual? Does it really matter what you do? If companies and governments do nothing, how do we change the system?
You can perhaps compare the circular economy to a team sport. If you want to win a match, you depend on your teammates, your coach, the materials made available by the club, the supporters and the support of people and organizations in your area. Yet you also play an important role yourself. You have influence on the training and preparations before a match, but also on the moment you enter the field and start the match. What is your mindset, what is your motivation?
The circular economy mindset is for everyone
As citizens, we play a role in different systems in which we work with people: in the family, at school, at work, in sports teams, etc. Every day we make choices that also influence the mindset of others. Do I use a plastic bag or do I bring my own bag? Do I drink from my own cup or the plastic cup from the coffee machine? Do I buy everything new or can I reuse things? If you work in a company that deals with plastic, or in a position where you work directly with plastic production or recycling, you can actively contribute to improving processes. It's a very cliche to say; a circular economy starts with yourself. And yet nothing could be further from the truth.