By Philippe Edde
Have you ever stopped to think about your plastic consumption? Perhaps you've mindlessly disposed of plastic without considering its long-term impact on our environment. Maybe you try to reuse and repurpose plastic whenever you can, or maybe you try to avoid using plastic altogether.
Whatever your stance on this topic may be, it is undeniable that plastic is all around us, with single-use plastics being especially prominent.
While there are many initiatives to remove our dependency on this kind of plastic, the reality is that it will continue to persist in our lives for a very long time. For instance, the personal protective equipment used by hospital staff is designed to be thrown away; it is a matter of safety that it is not reused.
Furthermore, plastics possess a myriad of useful qualities, like being durable, easily moldable, lightweight, and chemically stable. As such, they are also a great material for reusable products.
But even reusable products eventually break, and we should aim to recycle them instead of throwing them in a landfill. Did you know that plastic waste makes up 80% of all marine pollution and that around 8‒10 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the ocean each year? Cleanup initiatives would be most effective if we could take these materials and recycle them into new plastics.
The crux of managing plastics and reducing pollution lies in the development of infrastructure capable of easily transforming plastic waste into new, functional plastics. Unfortunately, our current recycling methods are far from satisfactory.
In Canada, less than 10% of our plastic waste actually gets recycled, highlighting the alarming reality of our linear plastic economy—where plastic is used once and then discarded as waste. However, what if we could break free from this mold and embrace a circular plastic economy?
What is a circular plastic economy? It’s a production system wherein all the new plastics produced come mostly from recycled plastics. This way, the amount of waste in the environment is reduced while limiting the amount of new petroleum needed to create plastic. Basically, it’s two birds with one stone. Easy, right?
Well, not quite. Restructuring the entire plastic economy is no simple feat. But there must be somewhere we can start. Authorities on the circular plastic economy agree that three major components must be a part of the circular economy: reduction, innovation, and circulation.
Component 1: Reduction
Reducing plastic waste starts with reducing its production. By replacing plastics with alternative materials like glass, cardboard, and paper, we can immediately make progress. Given that plastic demand is projected to double by 2050, offsetting this demand is crucial to realizing a circular plastic economy.
Component 2: Innovation
The second component of a circular plastic economy is creating new, intelligently designed plastic. Currently, plastics are made to look good and be functional. As such, a plastic bottle can be made of several different kinds of plastic polymers—one for the cap, another for the clear bottle, and a third for the plastic sleeve around it. Each of these pieces can be filled with dyes, making them even more difficult to recycle, especially if they are thrown into the same recycling bin (which is often the case).
Simplifying plastic packaging and ensuring its compatibility with recycling systems will pave the way for increased recycling rates. Organizations like CEFLEX in Europe are already achieving great progress in making flexible packaging recyclable, signaling the initial stages of a circular economy. However, this is not the only issue.
Actually getting plastic manufacturers to begin using these more sustainable plastics would require a lot of convincing. There are a couple of ways in which we could get around this.
First, we could get the government to incentivize or subsidize the production of easily recyclable plastics. Alternatively, we could make these kinds of plastics easily recognizable and then encourage the public to purchase the products they recognize as sustainably made plastics.
Component 3: Circulation
Once we have reduced plastic demand and made plastics easier to recycle, those products will actually need to be recycled and made to take over other plastics in the market. To fully close the loop, we must explore innovative recycling methods.
One emerging superpower in this field is chemical recycling. Chemical recycling involves breaking down plastics into their chemical building blocks. They can then be easily resynthesized into high-quality plastics indefinitely.
Compared to our current mechanical recycling methods, which are susceptible to contamination and issues regarding material separation, chemical recycling seems like a promising step forward.
Currently, a number of companies are working on this technology. One called Loop has even signed deals with a number of industrial plastic manufacturers and distributors to aid in the transition to a circular plastic economy.
Building a circular plastic economy requires collective efforts from governments, manufacturers, and consumers alike. It demands a fundamental shift in our approach to plastic, including the reevaluation of its role and impact on our environment. By reducing plastic demand, promoting intelligently designed plastics, and embracing innovative recycling methods, we can pave the way toward a more sustainable future.
Edited by Lumida Editing & Proofreading
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