Circular Economy

We can use plastics to change the world for the better

If we can start to see plastic as a resource rather than as rubbish, the benefits could be significant

If we can start to see plastic as a resource rather than as rubbish, the benefits could be significant Image: Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

Lesley Van Staveren
Co-founding director, ReGen Plastics
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Plastic Pollution

Plastic is often referred to as a material that needs to be eradicated.

There is no doubt that the way we use plastics and our understanding of it as a resource have to change drastically. Yes, there is too much virgin material being produced and too many natural resources are used in the process; combine that with the way the average consumer uses and disposes of plastic, and our current attitudes come as no surprise.

Ironically, plastic was first invented to solve environmental problems - to reduce hunting for ivory, for example, and to provide sheaths for electrical wiring. And it remains an extraordinary resource - if we can raise awareness of the potential in using what is already in existence.

It is the ideal material for long-term applications. As a pure material, plastic can continue to be reused, recycled and remanufactured. But to do this, we need to change our thinking.

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Plasticity of approach

One major barrier to the growth of new industries in remote or rural areas is the sheer distance between towns - but herein lies one example of the opportunities that a new plastics economy could create, with higher levels of employment, a consistent output and a true example of the circular economy in action. Growth in these areas will in turn create more opportunities for the next generation, who are seeking roles in which they can not only innovate and build a career but can also make a positive difference to our planet all while strengthening the economy.

By capturing the plastic we already have in circulation by developing clusters of direct collaboration along the supply chain, can not only strengthen local relationships but also capture value and create higher levels of transparency along the line.

Food manufacturers and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) containers offer one example of how regional loops might be created. This principle will be the same for other plastics similar to HDPE, with each having specific behavioural characteristics that can be applied to other long-term uses.

A food manufacturer will review their production process to ensure the plastic used for packaging containers is a pure resin (that is, not cheap, low-grade material) - which demonstrates the value of specific plastics vs cheap, low-performance products that continue to end up in landfill.

An ‘end of service’ partnership is created with a local plastic-processing facility, to which consumers can take their used containers either to be sterilized to food-grade quality and returned to the food manufacturer - or to be shredded, washed and manufactured into pellets that can then be recycled. This establishes the first local loop.

The pellets then go to the next partner in the supply chain; an end-market manufacturer, who can either manufacture more containers out of the recaptured material, or alternatively they could produce high-performance parts that can support other industries such as construction, marine or aviation.

These parts that were then utilized in complimenting industries can then be remanufactured again at the end of their service for that particular use.

Is there opportunity in this crisis?
Is there opportunity in this crisis? Image: Janet A Beckley / University of Georgia
Challenges

The biggest challenge? Throughout Australia, where our company is based, there are minimal plastic processing or manufacturing facilities.

This problem is compounded by the long distances that the majority of products we purchase have to be transported. This has substantial impacts, as resources are transported back and forth unnecessarily, generating needless emissions and road wear, not to mention freight costs.

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But through direct investment and innovation, and by designing infrastructure that is scalable to cope with the current and future volumes of plastic that are used and produced in each region, we can do the following:

· Capture what is already in existence

· Create full transparency and accountability for manufactured plastic

· Develop complementary relationships between industries.

· Dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in landfill or oceans

· Communicate that plastic is a valuable resource

· Reduce the amount of virgin material being produced

· Educate local communities about the differences between low grade and high-grade plastic

· Develop jobs and industries to give regions a greater influence over the sustainability of their local economy

Plastic isn't just rubbish: it could actually be a driver for transforming regional relationships and inspiring true collaborations founded on circular economy principles. The opportunity is there; we just have to look through a different lens.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Circular EconomyNature and BiodiversityForum Institutional
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