Circular Economy

In order to make plastic bans effective, we need to embrace the circular economy

A worker sorts waste plastic bottles at a recycling centre in the outskirts of Beijing April 26, 2013. China's National Development and Reform Commission announced that in an attempt to develop a circular economy, it will increase the annual output value of its resource recycling industry to 1.8 trillion yuan ($287 billion) by 2015, according to Xinhua. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (CHINA - Tags: ENVIRONMENT ENERGY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Policymakers need to be aware of the negative effects of "bandwagon participation". Image: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Lauren Phipps
Writer, GreenBiz
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If you’re new to the world of circular economy, you’ll soon learn that describing the landscape as "dynamic" is an understatement. I’m here to help you keep a pulse on this ever-evolving and rapidly expanding landscape. So circle up, and let’s roll.

This week, I’ve been struck by how circularity appears to have gone mainstream. From NBC News covering the U.S. recycling crisis and China import policies, to Barack Obama participating in a circular economy summit in Madrid, we’re seeing a significant shift in both audience and actor. In short, it’s quickly becoming broader and more mainstream.

You’ve probably heard about the near-daily bans of straws and plastic bags around the world. The momentum is hard to miss, but some cities may be missing the point as they join in on pushing their policy fixes. There’s a difference between systemic change — a core feature of circularity — and bandwagon participation. The latter sometimes comes with a hefty serving of unintended consequences.

Take the recent ban on single-use plastics in Maharashtra, India, the nation's second most populous state and home to nearly 115 million people, which came into effect June 23. Triggered by a concern for waterways choked by plastic waste during monsoon season, the ban has received praise from environmentalists, while opponents (on Twitter) have called out the policy’s discriminatory bias because it exempts certain manufacturers and products. For example, a local merchant selling milk in a plastic bag is met with about a $73 penalty — with steeper fines and potential imprisonment for repeat violations — while a milk delivery company is free to pursue business as usual, selling plastic bags of milk to customers.

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Maharashtra is not alone on the bandwagon of well-intentioned plastic policies that sometimes produce both ineffective and unfortunate outcomes. Without collaboration across the value chain and a rejection of the current linear model, circularity in a silo leaves us, well, running in circles.

Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

But many companies and cities are already making significant efforts to closing the loop. Joel Makower spoke with Ellen MacArthur last week about the momentum in corporate commitments to using 100 percent reusable, recyclable and compostable packaging by 2025 or sooner as a part of her organization’s New Plastics Economy initiative. "We’re not there yet," she said, "but those commitments are real and they are moving very, very quickly."

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Circular EconomyNature and Biodiversity
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