Circular Economy

These entrepreneurs are helping reduce plastic in our ecosystems

Plastic pollution in the ocean

Less than 10% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. Image: Unsplash/naja_bertolt_jensen

Ewan Thomson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Less than 10% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled.
  • Recycling initiatives have had limited success, but urgent progress is needed.
  • These 4 entrepreneurs on the World Economic Forum’s UpLink platform are developing scalable solutions to the plastic crisis.

We use over 460 million tonnes of plastics a year, according to the OECD – and that number is set to almost triple by 2060.

Less than 10% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled – the remaining 90% ends up being incinerated, sent to landfill or dumped into our ecosystems, particularly oceans.

Graph showing the increase of global plastics production
Reusing, recycling and repurposing plastics is vital to reducing levels in our ecosystems. Image: Our World in Data

Plastic is all around us. In fact, it is so ubiquitous that it is showing up in freshly fallen snow in the Antarctic and in the placentas of unborn babies.

The impact of such high levels of plastic waste and pollution is now threatening our ecosystems, our health and our well-being.

Plastic recycling plans

Recycling initiatives have had limited success. Each person living in the EU generated 34.6 kilograms (kg) of plastic packaging waste in 2020, but recycled just 13kg, according to the latest data from Eurostat. Recycling rates rose in 2010-16, but have since fallen back to 2011 levels.

Graph showing the plastic packaging waste generated and recycled in the EU from 2010-2020
Each person in the EU generated 34.6kg of plastic packaging waste in 2020, but recycled just 13kg. Image: Eurostat

The World Economic Forum’s Consumers Beyond Waste report says that “the expansion of our waste footprint is environmentally and economically unsustainable, and stakeholders are recognizing that we need to rethink how we produce and distribute materials, including how we manage them at end-of-life”.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

The report seeks to highlight more responsible models of plastic consumption, and to encourage a move away from single-use plastics – which make up half of all plastics produced – in favour of finding ways to reuse things, thereby creating circular economies.

The alarming quantity of plastics already embedded into our ecosystems – coupled with the projected near-tripling of plastics usage over the next 40 years – means solutions are urgently needed.

Entrepreneurs who feature on the World Economic Forum’s UpLink open innovation platform are already looking for scalable solutions to the plastic crisis.

Here are 4 initiatives that are helping to reduce the amount of plastic waste on our planet.

1. Transforming plastic waste into building materials

Vietnam-based Plastic People is upcycling plastic waste into building materials. It collects the waste from manufacturers or households, then sorts it, shreds it and melts it into boards that can be reshaped for numerous purposes, including for flooring, walls, roofs, furniture and even social housing.

2. Selling household products in reusable containers

In the UK, Re offers an alternative to single-use plastic containers with its “buy anywhere, return anywhere, reuse anywhere” approach. This allows a range of products, including washing detergent and shampoo, to be sold in packaging that can either be refilled once empty, or returned to the shop.

This business model is an example of the circular economy, a key component of the EU Plastic’s Strategy. Re also allows consumers to track their plastic savings, as well as to save money, because shoppers only pay for the contents of the bottle, not the cost of the bottle as well.

3. Replacing PVC with recyclable fabric

North American firm Renegade Plastics provides alternatives to PVC and polyethylene plastics. The company uses polypropylene-based fabrice, which can replace PVC or polyethylene used in structures such as hoop houses or high tunnels in agriculture.

Polypropylene produces 80% fewer CO2 emissions than PVC fabrics, and 40% fewer than polyethylene. Its fabrics are cheaper than PVC or polyethylene alternatives over the course of the fabric’s lifetime, and once the product’s use expires, consumers will be matched with recyclers who will turn it into something else useful.

4. Using AI to boost recycling

In Lebanon, Diwama has created AI-powered software that detects and categorizes recyclables on conveyor belts in real time. The Vitron software helps to improve the efficiency of the manual sorting process, and to increase the amount of plastics being recycled.

It can even detect brand names on packaging, meaning it can help companies to meet their sustainability goals by providing data on the recovery levels of their products.

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