A circular economy for plastics is a crucial step towards a circular world
For edie’s soon-to-published blueprint report for businesses and phasing-out single-use plastics, Martijn Lopes Cardozo, chief executive Circle Economy, outlines why tackling this problem material is crucial in enabling a more circular world.
We’ve never consumed at such a rapid pace—or wasted as much—as we do now. In the five years between the two landmark climate conferences in Paris and Glasgow, our global economy has collectively consumed half a trillion tonnes of materials.
We’re increasingly driven by thoughtless consumption and a throwaway culture where waste is treated as an afterthought—and in doing so, we’ve transgressed six of nine planetary boundaries, from climate change to pollution to biodiversity. Only 8.6% of the 100 billion tonnes of materials flowing through the global economy year on year are cycled.
Plastic espouses all of these transgressions: cheap and cheerful, this ‘miracle’ material is seemingly everywhere. It’s been mass-produced for the better part of the last century to wrap the food we eat, weave the clothes we wear, build the structures we live and work in and encase the products we buy. Yearly production now tops 380 million tonnes, and is carried out through harmful production processes—stemming from oil or coal—and end-of-life processes aren’t much better: we’re regularly assailed with images and news stories of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, marine animals struggling to free themselves from nets, bags and six-pack rings, and microplastics found in our food and tap water.
Originally made to protect and conserve natural resources like wood, stone and ivory, plastic’s good intentions have morphed into a behemoth. While some advantages remain—plastic-wrapped foods last longer, for example, while the material’s lightweight character can help cut fuel use if used for vehicles—our ill-thought production, overconsumption and end-of-life mismanagement have created a problem of massive proportions. Now, approximately 40% of the plastic we manufacture today is disposable packaging. It’s time for a deep shift in thinking about the way we make and use this material—it’s time for a new plastics economy. And the tides are finally turning: representatives from 175 countries endorsed a historic resolution at a recent UN Environment Assembly to end plastic pollution through an international—and legally binding—agreement.
Circular economy strategies provide an opportune solution to do so, shifting our view of a material that’s almost synonymous with ‘single-use’: they can help us design out waste and pollution and make the most of what’s already in circulation. At Circle Economy, we’re eager to shape this transition, knowing that businesses are in a key position to drive action: just 20 companies are behind half the world’s single-use plastic waste. A staggering statistic, but also a promising one: commitments from these giants would mean massive impact. Ultimately, it’s time to turn off the tap: instead of producing more, we need action that makes the most of what we already have.
What we do make must be shaped by eco-design principles that allow for better end-of-life management: everything should be made to be cycled. Brands that embrace a circular plastics economy, set targets and remain transparent about their progress will drive the transition forward—as will those that are willing to pay a higher price for recycled plastics. Businesses—both producers and brands—should put their money where their mouth is and pour investments into innovative, reusable plastics or improved recycling infrastructure, like deposit return schemes. Working together will be crucial: businesses can work towards better plastics management in collaboration, working with partners and experts to identify the most appropriate circular strategies for their businesses.
The circular economy extends beyond better material management—and its benefits and opportunities are manifold. As the world races towards net-zero, circularity provides a means for governments to slash emissions, reach their Paris Agreement targets and build more inclusive and resilient economies. A circular economy for plastics is a crucial step along the way to a circular world—and a circular world is a world in which people and planet can thrive.