Can a Circular Economy Solve the Problem of Plastic Pollution?
By Jennifer Ruith
We’ve all seen them.
The pictures of lifeless seabirds, their bellies split open to reveal the plastic bits that caused their starvation. Trash islands twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific. Beaches covered in litter, most of it single-use plastic.
Plastic pollution impacts many aspects of human health and well-being.
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, plastic pollution clogs our drains and sewage systems, creating a breeding ground for disease. It also disrupts the fishing, shipping, and tourism industries at a cost of $13 billion per year.
Tiny bits of broken down plastic, called microplastics, have even been found in the food we eat, the water we drink, and in the air we breathe.
We are drowning in plastic. And it will only get worse.
That is The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s take on a 2020 study by The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, “Breaking the Plastic Wave:The Circular Economy Solution to Plastic Pollution.
The study found that if we continue business-as-usual, plastic consumption will double in the coming years. The amount of plastic leaking into the ocean will triple, growing from 11m tonnes in 2016 to 29 tonnes in 2040.
And those floating plastic islands? They may quadruple in size. By 2040, there may be a whopping 600m tonnes of plastic in our oceans.
By 2050, there could be more plastic than fish.
We Can’t Recycle our Way out of This
So far, our efforts at recycling have been feeble against the tsunami of plastic coming our way.
The global population is rising fast, and so is the “throw-away” culture that comes along with it. The rate at which people consume plastic will outpace even our best efforts to collect and recycle plastic waste.
This is true especially in the developing world. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that to create formal recycling systems in these markets we would need to connect 500,000 people every single day.
And since it uses fossil fuels, recycling also increases greenhouse gas emissions. Not only does this contribute to global warming, it locks us into a system that relies upon finite sources of energy.
And did you know that only 8% of what we put into the recycling bin actually gets recycled?
Of course, we must continue to recycle and do more of it.
But recycling alone won’t fix this. We need to address plastic pollution at its source. This involves rethinking the plastic items that we put on the market in the first place and keeping it in the loop once its useful life is over.
We need to transition to a circular economy.
What is a Circular Economy?
The concept of a circular economy is borrowed from systems found in nature.
A You-Tube video posted by the Ellen MacArthur foundation explains this concept beautifully.
In nature, there are no landfills. Instead, natural resources flow back into the systems they came from. Plants grow in the soil, animals eat the plants, and when plants and animals die, nutrients return to the soil. Nothing is wasted.
Unlike natural systems, human-made economies operate on a take-make-waste, linear system.
When the latest smartphone comes out, we ditch our old one and buy another.
When our dishwasher is on the brink, we replace it, and the old one ends up in a landfill.
Every time we do this, we are tapping into raw materials such as minerals, ores, fossil fuels, and biomass. Often dispersing toxic waste into the environment.
It simply won’t work long-term.
So what will?
A Whole New Way of Thinking
We know that nature has already designed a perfect system. What if we radically rethink the way we do business so that our system more closely resembles the circular ones found in nature?
The aim of a circular economy is to return valuable resources back into the economy, producing little to no waste. The products and goods we use today can become the resources of tomorrow.
The report by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Ellen Mac Arthur foundation sets forth several creative solutions already in the works.
We can design packaging made of safe and compostable materials that add nutrients to our soil so we can grow more natural resources. Or we can rethink packaging altogether and imagine package-free delivery models.
We can also rethink ownership of products. What if we don’t own those smartphones and dishwashers, but instead rent them from the manufacturer? These products can be returned to the manufacturer at the end of their life and reused to make new ones.
And those old smartphones and dishwashers that would otherwise end up in a landfill? They contain precious metals and polymers that can be recycled into new products. This extends the value of a product well beyond its useful life.
A Circular Economy is a Sensible Economy
The circular economy is about maximizing value.
Take the lifecycle of a tire. TIres are made from natural and synthetic rubbers. Tire manufacturing requires water and raw materials such as rubber trees and oil, as well as energy from fossil fuels.
Once those tires are in use, they wear down, shedding microplastics into the environment. According to National Geographic, even though most tires are recycled, 20 percent still end up in a landfill at the end of their life.
In a linear economy, there is waste at every level of the value chain.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that the manufacturing of products uses over 21 billion tonnes of materials that aren’t actually part of the products themselves. That means companies are literally spending billions of dollars every year to create waste.
That waste has value. Its recovery in the form of reusing and recycling would put nearly 200 billion USD back into the economy every year. This would open up new markets and business opportunities.
And with the innovation required to transition to a circular economy, we could potentially create 700,000 new jobs.
We Need to Act Now
We are at the cusp of an exciting revolution. But to make the circular economy a reality, we will need collaboration, ambition and innovation on a scale not seen since the moon landing.
The good news is that over 450 organizations, including some of the world’s biggest companies, have already signed on.
A blogpost by Triple Pundit identifies several companies making exciting changes towards sustainability in 2021.
Patagonia, a long-time advocate of reuse and repair, has bolstered its uber-green brand with several new initiatives.
Its online secondhand shop, Worn Wear, now carries a ReCrafted collection of damaged goods.
Repair guides help customers repair their worn Patagonia gear themselves. And every new product listed online now includes an option for customers to buy used.
Ikea is also experimenting with reused and refurbished products.
The company recently launched a large-scale furniture buy-back program. Ikea’s refurbished furniture stores now operate in 27 countries, including Germany and Japan.
Customers who bring their used furniture back to the store can receive vouchers for up to 50 percent of an item’s original price. Items that are not resold are recycled or donated.
Other industries are finding creative ways to use recovered plastic waste in their products.
In 2020, Adidas sold 15 million pairs of sneakers made from plastic collected from beaches and coastlines. Hewlett Packard unveiled a Chromebook made from recovered ocean-bound plastics. And this summer, the US Olympic Team sported Nike uniforms made from 100 percent recycled polyester.
The athletic-wear maker Puma has found a way to use more sustainable materials in its products and build social capital at the same time.
It has partnered with the First Mile Coalition, a network of self-employed refuse collectors. The coalition operates in regions with poor waste collection services, such as Taiwan, Honduras, and Haiti. Its goal is to not only reduce plastic pollution, but to provide income earning opportunities for underserved people.
In 2020, Puma launched a sportswear collection made from up to 100 percent recycled yarn sourced from the First Mile network. The partnership has diverted over 40 tonnes of plastic waste from oceans and landfills.
Save Our Seas 2.0 Act
Governments too are getting into the act.
In a rare show of bipartisan cooperation, the US Congress passed the Save Our Seas 2.0 act in December 2020.
According to the National Law Review, the act addresses plastic pollution in marine and coastline environments across the globe. Its focus is on research, international engagement, and grants for infrastructure projects.
It encourages further research on pollution from microfibers, microplastics, plastic polymers, and lost fishing gear. It aims to establish formal definitions, tests, and measurements of plastic debris, influencing future policy-making decisions.
It combines federal funding for research with a privately funded “Genius Prize” to encourage innovation.The act prioritizes US leadership in international negotiations. In agreements involving plastic pollution, the president must consider the impact on marine environments.
And, it lays the groundwork for a new international plastics treaty that may be negotiated this year.
Finally, the act prompts investments to improve drinking and wastewater infrastructure. Its aim is to not only remove and prevent plastic waste but also to rethink how that waste can be reused in infrastructure projects.
What Can You Do?
It’s encouraging to see our leaders in government and industry embrace circular-economy thinking.
But we shouldn’t wait for change to happen “at the top.” There are many things that each of us could do today to “go circular.”
Write to your representatives at all levels of government. Tell them to follow the example set by several states and enact bans on plastic bags and other single-use plastic items.
Write also to major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s, and Costco. Encourage them to use compostable and biodegradable packaging where possible. Point to the success of retailers such as Aldi and Lidl that have eliminated single-use plastic bags.
Vote with your wallet. Consumers have enormous power to tell companies what they want. Buy less, and make sure the things that you buy are circular.
Ditch single-use plastic, use reusable bags over plastic at beach cleanups and encourage others to do the same.
If you are not already using a reusable water bottle, buy one from the Ocean Blue Project online store. Your purchase will help remove 30 pounds of plastic from our oceans and help save thousands of ocean animals.
Join a beach or river cleanup in your community or start one of your own. We’ll help you request the permits and get organized. Contact us today for more information.
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Jennifer Ruith is a freelance editor and writer living in the greater Washington D.C. area.