Circular Economy, Prosperity

Looping plastic into the circular economy

Douglas Woodring | Oct 19, 2017

Creating a perfect world of circulating resources is an enormous challenge, but the benefits of being able to succeed with resource recovery and reuse are both exciting and imperative if our global community is to function with an improving quality of life.

Tackling the plastic pollution problem

Plastic is an amazing material, with so many good uses, when not recovered to enter the circular economy, which roughly 90 percent of which is not; the pollution it creates is one of the most vexing issues of our time. It has a half-life which far exceeds that of carbon, is highly durable, complex in its make-up, widely diverse in its types, light weight, and hard to recover economically at scale. These traits create daunting challenges for scaled recovery.  As the world’s population grows, with an increasing consumption of goods that are made of, or packed within, plastic, the burden on our communities continues to increase. The quest for reduced carbon use in transportation, production and packaging has exploited many of the “low hanging fruit” opportunities that plastic and light-weighting have provided, but have now left us with tough questions of where to go next, and how to recover this permanent material which we use in a plethora of non-permanent ways.  

Driving the Circular Economy

The recovery and circulation of plastic waste, however, also poses some large opportunities for the engaged leaders in business, innovation and policy that see this blight in our environment and waters continuing to grow. Those who lead in the use of bring-back programs, “enlightened procurement” for recycled content, and optimization of reverse supply-chains and home “recovery/collection” programs to complement deliveries, will be well suited to inspire, recruit and engage communities who now recognize unsustainability, but who may not know how to act on it efficiently themselves. Collectively, we need to encourage thought leaders, innovators and social-change experts to collaborate with the “Elon Musks” of the world, companies who can run (and benefit from) the programs, and the policy makers who can facilitate laws and regulations, which make material recovery a priority. These improvements can and should be considered regardless of the size of the company, or whether they operate in villages, towns, municipalities or nations.

Private Sector key to success

Governments can facilitate circularity and waste avoidance, but it is the private sector, which will thrive on it once some good case studies are promoted, scaled and replicated. Two recent reports on plastic and the new economies that come from it are relevant here:  one of which was launched at the World Economic Forum this year by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on the “New Plastics Economy,” while the other was issued by Vulcan and Encourage Capital, “Sea of Opportunity – Supply Chain Investment Opportunities to Address Marine Plastic Pollution.” These offer insights into sectors and solutions which can be focused on by companies big and small, hopefully inspiring the needed leadership in the private sector which can evaluate the net benefits that are created for our communities, customers and the environment. A report we initiated with Trucost for Dell and Algix on Net Benefit Analysis can help to explain the untapped opportunities here vis-à-vis a new method of calculating the value of positive externalities, leading to improved brand reputation, consumer empowerment and loyalty. 

Moving toward a zero waste future

Although the world is now more aware of our plastic pollution challenges, easy and scalable examples have yet to be showcased at the level needed for substantial change. There is no silver bullet for plastic pollution, and slowing the creation of waste from our consumption habits will require creative, engaging, community-embracing programs that can scale in volume, but which can also incentivize and reward companies, governments and the communities to participate over the long term. This requires the minds, visions and acceptance by producers that they have a responsibility to the communities they serve, by taking care of the materials they disperse, even at the end of their initial life. This is where the discussion at Plasticity Sydney comes into play, which brings together experts across the plastic spectrum to speak about innovations and solutions, for a world without the waste footprint. Everyone on the planet has a responsibility to protect the world’s oceans – it’s high time we worked for upstream solutions to plastic pollution.

Douglas Woodring

Co-Founder, Managing Director

Ocean Recovery Alliance

Mr. Woodring is the Co-Founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance, a non-profit organization that is focused on bringing together innovative solutions, technology, collaborations and policy to create positive improvements for the health of the ocean.

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