Cradle-to-cradle, and the dangers of disconnection

A circular economy. A new way of thinking for policy-makers as they sketch out roadmaps trying to figure out how best to bend our linear models of supply and consumption.

In this blueprint for a spheroid world, nothing would be lost; materials and resources would be captured, transformed, and fed back into cycles of production. For a circular economy functions by being restorative – a bit like nature.

But just imagine putting such ambition into practice. Imagine having to join all the dots. Mindsets would need to be radically altered. Business leaders from diverse and unrelated sectors would have to clamber out of their silos and talk to each other.

Take packaging for example. Right now there are designers and brand owners dreaming up new, complex brilliance in material functionality – materials that aim to seduce our purchasing decisions, ultimately.

Blended into this mix increasingly is a specification for recycled content. Plant-based plastics are a popular choice at the moment for the likes of Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble, who have incorporated a certain percentage of it into their bottled brands.

All well and good, until you realise that certain materials, like mixed plastics, are proving problematic to recover. Once a shampoo bottle reaches its end-of-life, how do you tell if it's made of virgin plastic or bioplastic? Visually, they look the same.

It's not just about identification, but separation too – there is reprocessing technology out there such as infra-red fingerprinting which can distinguish between the different polymer types, but it's an expensive investment.

And even once you extract the bios from the virgins (in plastic terms), there has to be a end-market to sell it onto. For it all to be worthwhile. But my sources indicate there isn't much value attached to bioplastics right now. Worryingly, demand hasn't yet been built into this recovery model.

Which comes back to my original point. If you are going to successfully close the loop and keep resources flowing then every key stakeholder involved in that process needs to collaborate, from source to end-of-life.

So before designers, manufacturers and retailers invent more complex packaging, they need to talk to reprocessors. But according to one major player in the waste sector I've spoken to, this communication is virtually non-existent.

I'm no expert, but I'd imagine the starting point for a circular economy is a huddle, of sorts. Everyone getting together for a spot of brainstorming. Packaging is just one case in point.

Unless organisations get holistic about this, overturn traditional ideas of ownership and find new ways to mesh their thinking, they won't come together in the way that is required. They will merely end up chasing their own tails.

maxine perella

Topics: edie
Tags: bioplastics | Circular economy | Coca Cola | mixed plastics | packaging | technology
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