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Organized Recycling is Key in New Closed Plastics Economy

With global plastic consumption continuing to increase despite the pollution epidemic, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is proposing a different approach to eliminating plastic pollution. In the New Plastics Economy, plastic never becomes waste. Instead, economic players will take three crucial actions to collectively solve this issue:

  1. Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items.
  2. Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable.
  3. Circulate all the plastic items we do use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

Moving away from linear economics

At the heart of the plastic pollution epidemic is the usefulness, affordability, and versatility of the material. Plastic has addressed and resolved a multitude of societal dilemmas; however, the ‘throwaway’ culture that prevails has resulted in an unsustainable linear economy. In a linear economy, the products manufactured are used once (or for a single period of time), then thrown away and eventually discarded into a landfill or ocean.

A linear economy is not a sustainable economy, thus creating urgency for a global transition to a circular economy. In a circular economy, products would be designed and manufactured in such a way that it would be easy to break them down into separate components for recycling and composting. Ideally, the material components would be manufactured and separated in such great condition that it would be easy to manufacture a new recycled product of the same high quality as the original.

Moving away from a linear economy also means ceasing to produce and consume disposable items that can be replaced with reusable alternatives. Single use plastics such as straws, grocery bags, and cutlery will be eliminated entirely in place of reusable and biodegradable alternatives.

Acknowledging the problems plastic does NOT solve

Plastic has enabled worldwide growth from the development of lightweight cars and aircraft to augmented global health through food preservation. Unfortunately, its affordability and convenience have resulted in plastic becoming overutilized in the manufacture of unnecessary single-use and short-term-use products.

An integral element in the transition to the new closed plastics economy will be acknowledging all of the items that are unnecessary (ex. promotional products that do not serve a long-term purpose) and disposable products that can be made durable and reusable for the long term. All disposable plastic items, such as packaging and cutlery, can be replaced with reusable and biodegradable alternatives. Humanity is approaching the time to identify plastic products that we can manage without (ex. disposable straws) and to eliminate them from the economy entirely.

Establishing recycling industry standards

The key element in the transition to a closed economy will be the establishment of industry standards within the recycling sector. As it stands presently, there is little incentive for manufacturers to select mixed or discolored recycled polymers for production when new polymers are available at the same price or less.

In order for manufacturers to actively choose recycled polymers, the quality of the material needs to be standardized and upheld. In addition governments need to push consumers to prioritize recycled materials as a component in their purchasing.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggests manufacturers produce products that can be easily separated for recycling so that the products created from the recycled material maintain the same quality as non-recycled products. It is imperative that governments and consumers alike push manufacturers to offer products and packaging made from recycled and biodegradable materials.

Additionally, the need for recycling factories will continue to grow with the influx of recaptured plastic waste. If you are social entrepreneur interested starting a recycling-based business, click here.