Opportunities for plastics in a circular world

ShutterstockNagy-Bagoly Arpad

As world population increases, so does the consumption of resources as economies expand. Without arguing about whether some or all of these resources are finite, it is clear to many that to the extent we can recover material which has become waste after its initial use, the more likely we are to sustainably carry out those activities of consumption in the years to come.

Plastic is one material that binds our planet, both figuratively, in terms of packaging and widespread use in so many industries, but also in the way that when it becomes waste: it is shown to be present in most corners of the world. Plastic can be made from many non-petroleum sources, including even carbon dioxide, so some might suggest that this material is not under the immediate pressure facing many other resources.

The need to recover this material, however, before it becomes waste is growing in urgency. Our recycling and waste infrastructure are not designed to handle such lightweight, durable and variable material. Recent global estimates suggest that over 8 million tons of plastic waste are reaching our ocean each year.

Creating a perfect world of circulating resources is an enormous challenge, but the benefits of being able to succeed with resource recovery and reuse are both exciting and imperative if our global community is to function with an improving quality of life.

Plastic is an amazing material, with so many good uses, but its afterlife, in the form of plastic pollution, Is creating what may be one of the most vexing issues of our time. Plastic has a half-life that far exceeds that of carbon, and is hard to recover economically at scale. Yet if we can "crack the code" on harnessing the value that plastic represents, we will create large opportunities for the engaged leaders in business, innovation and policy.

Those who lead in the use of bring-back programs, optimizing reverse supply-chains and home recovery-and-collection programs to complement deliveries, will be well suited to inspire, recruit and engage communities that recognize the unsustainability of plastic waste but who may not know how to act on it efficiently themselves. Collectively, we need to encourage thought leaders, innovators and social-change experts to collaborate with companies that can run (and benefit from) new technologies, materials, processes and programs. Policy makers who can facilitate laws and regulations that make material recovery a priority should be given high acclaim, as they can create jobs and healthier communities along the way.

These improvements should be considered, regardless of the size of a company or whether it operates in villages, towns, municipalities or nations. The environment notwithstanding, the health of communities and customers should be incentive enough to demand and encourage management to really focus on being an active participant in the circular economy.

Plastic pollution is at the top of many environmental agendas, as it directly affects the abilities of cities to be resilient. Governments can facilitate circularity and waste avoidance, but the private sector will thrive on it once some good case studies are promoted, scaled and replicated.

Net benefits

Two recent reports on plastic, and the new economies created from it, are relevant here: one was launched at the World Economic Forum this year by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on the New Plastics Economy, while the other was issued by Vulcan and Encourage Capital, "Sea of Opportunity: Supply Chain Investment Opportunities to Address Marine Plastic Pollution (PDF)." These offer insights into sectors and solutions that can be focused on by companies big and small. Hopefully, these also will inspire the needed leadership in the private sector that can evaluate the net benefits created for communities, customers and the environment, and lead to smart, enlightened decisions in supply chains, processes and products.

A report we initiated with Trucost for Dell and Algix on Net Benefit Analysis can help to explain the untapped opportunities here to justify smart environmental decisions, even if they cost a bit more. This new method and mindset of calculating the value of positive externalities also can lead to improved brand reputation, consumer empowerment and increased loyalty.

Although the world is more aware of our plastic pollution challenges, easy and scalable examples have yet to be showcased at the level needed for substantial change. Waste is a localized issue, and access to feedstock for recycling or energy creation is dependent upon collection and recovery systems that typically do not exist yet in efficient forms, including even in developed cities.

There is no silver bullet for plastic pollution, and slowing the creation of waste from our consumption habits will require creative, engaging, community-embracing programs that can scale in volume, but which can also incentivize and reward companies, governments and communities to participate over the long term. This requires the minds, visions and acceptance by producers that they have a responsibility to the populations they serve, by taking care of the materials they disperse, even at the end of their initial life.

This is where the discussions at the Plasticity Forums come into play, with two in the U.S. in the coming weeks, bringing together experts across the plastic value chain to speak about upstream innovations and solutions for a world without the waste footprint.

This will require education about the complexities and importance of slowing plastic pollution for creating benefits in communities; without that, we will not get the scaled results for waste reduction we need. In some ways, we need to go into "crisis mode" thinking, as this often brings out the great minds and innovations that can unlock the vast opportunities to create positive environmental impacts.

The momentum to get the wheels turning on resource circulation is only just beginning, yet the urgency to do so does not yet seem to be apparent to all, particularly when many across the world are only just entering the world of increased consumption and packaged products. This is where we need leaders and doers from the private sector to kick into gear.

When this happens, our communities, waters, the ocean and our environment will all be big benefactors of the improvements created from a circular economy world.