Plastics in a Circular Economy

Recently, the phrase “circular economy” has become the latest craze in sustainability news and initiatives. A circular economy is a system that strives for little to no waste; products are used to their maximum potential and then materials are resourced when they have reached the end of their lives. It’s meant to revolutionize the old “make, use, dispose” linear system, which is reaching its physical limit and further straining resources.

Plastic, with a demand of 202 million tons each year and an expected rise by 40 million tons forecasted for 2017, is a ubiquitous material that is not going away anytime soon. It’s estimated that only 9% of plastic is actually recycled in the US. So, how can an approach that calls for sustainable products and a lack of waste overcome the linear system’s greatest asset?

A New Way of Thinking

For plastic to be successful in a circular economy, a new way of thinking is required.

This has to start with the product development stages (cradle) instead of focusing on end-of-life management (grave). Manufacturers should embrace lean design principles to evaluate and compare components and materials of plastics with life cycle thinking in mind. Understanding the polymers and their effect is crucial, such as Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or Expandable Polystyrene (EPS) which are materials often found in plastic that are not recyclable. Embracing product design with a closed loop approach will force companies to reconsider the use of virgin materials and instead find innovative materials that may save costs along the way.

A common perception is that for waste to be substantially reduced, the dated recovery system simply needs to change. While recovery infrastructure improvements are needed, product design should innovate around today’s realities to fulfill material recovery potential. Oftentimes, materials are labeled as waste way too early in the manufacturing process when value can still be obtained in other ways. Most companies should be striving to reduce the amount of waste created in the first place by reusing, revaluing, repurposing, and recycling products. Recycling, while noble, is not the overarching goal of a circular economy because that means the waste has already been created. Closing the loop is about finding innovate ways to prevent materials from becoming waste in the first place.

One area where plastics may benefit the circular economy is in industrial packaging. Packaging poses a unique problem since it is purposefully manufactured to have a short life and oftentimes isn’t very durable. Most of the time, packaging is mindlessly discarded immediately. However, in industrial packaging plastics can be used to replace significantly less durable materials like paper and cardboard, reducing the packaging’s life cycle impact. For example, The Philips Company uses plastic crates instead of the standard one-use cardboard boxes to transport their products to factories and suppliers.

Why a Circular Economy?

The circular economy approach has grown in prominence relatively recently, but it’s already making waves across numerous industries for multiple reasons. Resources are strained and holding on to old ways will only increase this strain; we must start to use resources more consciously.

The Ellen McArthur Foundation projects that by 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight. Advocates of a circular economy are trying to reverse this trend with a system that utilizes materials to their maximum potential. Products will become more valuable and durable. Other benefits include financial gains when companies are forced to reevaluate their processes. This innovative approach causes companies to consider what is truly necessary to find longer value in their products, energy, and labor.

Plastic is a valuable material; it’s cheap, versatile, and lightweight. Plastics have become a necessity of everyday life, making it seem impossible to change today’s “make-use-dispose” model. By embracing circular thinking and innovation, even a cheap, easily accessible material like plastic can become a part of the closed loop.

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