3 circular plastics trends to watch

plastic bottles with circles over
ShutterstockGreenBiz Collage

This article is drawn from the Circular Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Fridays.

The conversation about plastics is officially mainstream. Every day brings a new headline about the technologies, policy changes, unlikely (or likely) collaborations or commitments to reduce or eliminate plastics in packaging, products and ecosystems. And I’m probably not the only one reading them.

While the term "circular economy" is still relatively nascent, popular news outlets have been ramping up their coverage of these stories, broadening and maturing the public discourse. Case in point: My mother, a public radio enthusiast, asked me this week if I’d heard about China’s ban on recycling imports. (Thanks, Mom.)

These stories are no longer only for technical journals or activist outlets. Journalists at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Guardian, NPR and many others have done a fantastic job at covering plastics issues, demonstrating the material economic and environmental impacts of plastics pollution, recycling restrictions and wasteful resource use.

In other words, they’re helping make the case for circularity. 

However, with more coverage comes more to track. Here are three stories about plastics that I’m keeping tabs on right now:

1. Commitments are getting real. You may remember that in October, more than 275 brands, retailers, recyclers, governments and NGOs announced a shared vision to close the loop on plastics pollution, the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF). Of course, commitments are one thing; actions are another.

This week, EMF and United Nations Environment released the first progress report on the Global Commitment. A few notable updates: Since October, the number of signatories has grown to more than 350 and includes Apple, Barilla, Tetrapak and L'Occitane en Provence, as well as the government of Rwanda and the cities of Sáo Paulo, Brazil, and Ljubijana, Slovenia.

Major companies including Carrefour, Coca-Cola, Colgate Palmolive, Mars, Nestle, SC Johnson and Unilever publicly have disclosed their annual plastic packaging volumes, marking an important step towards greater transparency in plastics use. One notable figure: Coca-Cola reports that it consumes 3 million metric tons of plastic packaging annually, although the number has not been independently verified.

Companies outside the Global Commitment are also stepping up their game on plastics: Just this week, U.S. grocery chain Trader Joe’s announced a commitment to cutting 1 million pounds of single-use plastics in its stores (no more plastic-wrapped produce on styrofoam trays).

2. Movement on microfibers: These tiny synthetic fragments, found in waterways, water bottles and humans’ bodies, are raising concerns about the impacts of apparel on the environment. A polyester fleece jacket could shed up to 250,000 of these tiny fibers each time it’s washed, according to a recent study. This adds up to more than 500,000 metric tons of microfibers — the equivalent of 50 billion plastic water bottles — that enter the ocean every year from washing synthetics.

Meanwhile, apparel companies H&M, Patagonia and Adidas are funding research on understanding and solving the world’s microfiber problem, and solutions upstream, in textile processing, and downstream, in at-home washing, are beginning to take off. But the widespread understanding about the consequences of microfibers and solutions to prevent contamination are still early days.

3. Spotlight on chemical recycling: While the market for chemical recycling remains in its infancy — recent predictions suggest the technology could become mainstream within the next decade — the market is heating up. I’m eagerly awaiting the release of a new report by Closed Loop Partners, set for next month, which will examine the landscape of players, language and interventions to accelerate the market.

Innovations continue to bubble up. For example, my colleague Heather Clancy recently wrote about IBM’s breakthrough VolCat system (short for volatile catalyst), which chemically processes mixed plastics even with contaminants such as food residue, dyes and pigments. IBM’s VolCat, Loop Industries and BASF’s ChemCycling project are a few of the growing players in this space.

Chemical recycling will play a significant role in creating more circular value chains for plastics, but faces challenges in scale and economics, as business models are hard-pressed to compete with the cheap price of virgin resin. The next few years will be critical to the development of the technology and business models necessary to make chemical recycling work at scale.

Speaking of circular plastics innovation: Circularity 19 (June 18-20 in Minneapolis) will be the largest circular economy event in North America. Best Rates expire March 29 — register now to save up to 40 percent. Learn more here, and I hope to see you in June.