Tipping Toward a New Plastics Economy

Coming full circle to end plastic waste

I’ve got a love-hate relationship. It’s one of those where you can’t live without them, but living with them is a nightmare. Most of us have this relationship – with plastic.

We love plastic in our societies because it’s cheap, flexible, lightweight, water-corrosion-temperature resistant and durable. It makes our lives easier.

We hate the impact plastic has on our environment and our oceans. It has turned our planet, wildlife and our own bodies into toxic waste dumps.

But the problem with plastic lies not in the material itself, but in the economic system in which it serves.

The Plastic Paradigm – from Cradle to Grave

Poor plastic. This miracle substance is the poster child for an industrial age where the linear process of taking, making and disposing is par for the course. This economic system depletes limited resources to create products that largely end up as waste in landfills, incinerators or our environment.

While “re-purposing” may be all the rage on blogs, trendy décor TV shows, and progressive companies are finding cool uses for recycled plastic, very little disposable plastic actually gets a second life. 

Our disposable plastic pollution is the painful residue of economic thinking that is reaching its limits. While important, recycling, incineration, and other waste management efforts are not enough to stem the tide.  

What we ultimately need is new thinking. Taking a cue from nature, we need zero-waste strategies which approach the problem differently.  As is usually the problem, we don't need to scrap the relationship, we do need to change ourselves.

In the late 1970s, an economist and thinker named Walter Stahel coined the expression “Cradle to Grave” to refer to our resource-to-waste habits. He and others developed “Cradle to Cradle” production processes that closed the loop, mimicking the way symbiotic biological ecosystems function.

The idea itself is simple. What’s called the “circular economy” envisions a system in which there is no waste — only valuable potential. Materials are recycled and re-purposed to create new raw materials for the production cycle to continue. Fewer virgin resources are needed for production, as well as less water, energy and money.

A report produced earlier this year envisions a global circular economy where plastics never become waste. The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation outlines business-driven steps and innovation we could take to make the shift happen.

There’s a lot at stake for businesses as well as the environment to paving a circular path for plastic. According to the report, the cost of plastic packaging that isn’t recycled is at least $40 billion a year, which exceeds “the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool.” Shifting to a circular economy in general could generate $706 billion worth of economic opportunity, with a “significant proportion” coming come from the packaging we now throw away.

A New Plastics Economy

oceana-logoThe new plastics economy would re-use plastic packaging as biological or technical “nutrients” instead of waste. The aim is “to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times.” It’s not too far-fetched. In Europe, a reported 53 percent of plastic packaging can already be recycled effectively.

Part of the vision includes developing practical bio-plastics that can feed other products or organisms (such as agricultural via compost), in addition to synthetic plastics that are re-used as raw materials for other products. Both keep the loop open in the industrial ecosystem vs closing it with harmful landfill and ocean waste.

What a beautiful, connected vision. But are we ready to go there, culturally and psychologically?

The culture of our developed, capitalistic world has spent the past half a century or so transforming our economic values. Production has been the means to economic wealth. Planned obsolescence became the norm. Creating wealth by making things last and re-purpose-able has rarely been embraced.

The circular economy replaces that notion with another idea that’s simple in concept – sufficiency. You could call it the Re-Economy, as in  reuse, recycle, repair, renovate and remanufacture.

Our definition of quality and economic value would have to change. How often do you hear of people trading in a perfectly useful and functioning automobile in order to “upgrade” to a newer one? Using things long-term is considered desperate, not resourceful. Fixing what’s broken is seen as a waste of time and money when you can easily buy a shiny new one.

New Paradigms for Performance

As thought-leader Walter Cahell explains, the ultimate goal of a circular economy is performance.

In a linear economy, ownership and liability ultimately flow to the buyer. We value the concept of personal ownership, progress and keeping up with the latest trends or fashions. We want to own more and better stuff, so companies prosper by selling us more and more cheap fashionable goods with no responsibility for where they end up (such as the ocean!)

In a circular economy, reprocessing materials generates jobs and saves energy while conserving resources and reducing waste. For example, re-using a glass bottle is favored and made cheaper than recycling or producing a new bottle from raw minerals. Companies have business incentives to save money or increase profits by enabling products to retain value throughout their life cycle.

The performance-focused economy goes further by shifting the idea of what we are buying and selling. Products are now sold as services that we use but do not own. We are seeing signs of it with more movement toward the sharing of goods as services such as renting cars, apartments, guest rooms, tools, computers and clothing. We buy not the product itself, but the right to use it as a service. Performance is the benchmark for quality. The manufacturer owns the product and has incentives to keep it in service and performing well, plus retaining the responsibility for the costs of waste and recycling.

The potential benefits of this approach to our planet and ocean environment are huge. A study of European nations found that a shift to a circular economy would reduce seven nation's greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 70% and grow their workforce by about 4%.

Different parts of the world are in different stages of transition. The circular economy works when there are resources to invest in clean technologies for recycling and re-manufacturing. Recirculating goods because of poverty, necessity or at the expense of the environment is not the idea here.

The paradigm shift is making headway, slowly. In the meantime, let’s make peace with the useful plastic in our lives. Because we've created lifestyles where we do need it, but we need it to serve us and not harm us or our oceans.

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