The UN Environment Programme together with The Ellen MacArthur Foundation envisioned a no-waste plastic future enabled by the circular economy. Public and private sectors are now working towards the achievement of that vision.
Is plastic pollution real?
Plastic pollution has become a critical environmental issue due to the world inability to deal with its increasing single-use items production. In fact, its production increased from 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 million tons in 2014, and is expected to double again over the next 20 years. Plastic pollution is most visible where garbage collection systems are inefficient, like in developing countries, or where recycling rates are low. The UN Environment Programme estimates that around 13 million tons of plastic flow yearly into our oceans, polluting the overall food chain and damaging the marine ecosystems.
Plastic also had a good side: made from fossil fuels, is just over a century old and helped shape the modern age, allowing the development of medicine devices, of space travel, of lightened cars and much more. Nevertheless, the convenience offered by plastics led to a single-use culture, accounting today for 40% of the yearly plastic production. Plastic bags, for example, have on average a lifespan of few hours but then persist in the environment for hundreds of years when not properly managed. The World Economic Forum and The Ellen MacArthur Foundation stated in The New Plastics Economy report that about 95% of plastic packaging material value, accounting around $80- 120 billion each year, is lost to the economy after a short first use.
What can we do about plastic pollution?
The New Plastic Economy report proposes a no-waste plastic vision: a circular economy that will enable the plastic value chain to deliver improved outcomes at system and environmental levels, maintaining the pros of plastic packaging.
They identify six key elements to achieve such a circular economy are:
1. Elimination of critical or unnecessary plastic packaging by redesign and innovation.
2. Decreasing the need of single-use plastic packaging promoting reuse models.
3. 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic packaging.
4. Effective reuse, recycle or compost of plastic packaging.
5. Decoupling of plastic use from finite resources consumption.
6. Free plastic packaging from hazardous chemicals to respect health, safety and rights of all people.
Are there plastic circular economy examples?
An interesting example, among many, of plastic circular economy is the initiative launched by Goodwood Plastic Products, a company in Halifax (Canada), to convert plastic waste into a wood substitute used for construction. Around 80% of recyclable plastic waste from the Canadian city of Halifax is collected and converted into a synthetic lumber, wharf timbers, guardrails, agricultural posts and much more. Such a material is durable and can be nailed, glued and handled like real wood. For example, the company's recycled building blocks have been the basis for durable outdoor furniture like park benches and picnic tables.