In recent years, there has been a huge shift in attitudes towards waste and recycling, with new regulations and targets being set by policymakers and governments alike. At the heart of these discussions is the need to create a circular economy – one that ensures countries handle resources in a sustainable and effective way. This is particularly true of plastic, which, despite being the workhorse of the global economy, is often produced and disposed of unsustainably.
The sheer amount of plastic used around the world each year is staggering: since plastic production entered the mainstream in the 1950s, more than 8.3 billion tonnes have been produced, 6.3 billion tonnes of which is now regarded as plastic waste. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, only 14 percent of plastic is recycled globally. By comparison, the global recycling rate for paper is 58 percent, while 70 to 90 percent of iron and steel is reprocessed. Clearly, plastic is by far the most problematic material in circulation; if the current trend continues, there will be 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste in our landfills and ecosystems by 2050.
A load of rubbish
The past 40 years have seen our unsustainable linear economic model – take, make, dispose – accelerate at an alarming rate, with approximately one million plastic bottles now bought every minute. To put this into context, more than 800,000 of these will be incinerated, disposed of in landfills or lost into the natural environment. In other words, plastic packaging has become a key driver of our waste crisis.
Progressive schemes should be set up to allow consumers, policymakers and brand owners to adopt the mindset that plastic is not disposable, but is a valuable resource
Today, the battle against plastic waste is taking place on a global scale, with new regulations demanding that governments and policymakers reassess their approach to handling refuse. Recent import bans in China, Malaysia and Thailand, for example, have left waste-exporting countries sitting on a lot of plastic. As a result, these states are now being forced to look at their own recycling infrastructures in order to find sustainable solutions to their domestic waste management problems.
By adopting a circular model, it will become possible for such countries to collect and recycle plastics on a large scale and to a high standard, creating a closed loop that has positive environmental impacts, such as reducing carbon emissions and limiting the production of virgin materials. Fortunately, policymakers, industry leaders and technology providers are beginning to wake up to this fact.
Finding value in waste
There isn’t just one simple solution to creating a truly circular economy. Instead, a number of factors need to work in harmony to ensure the idea of reducing plastic waste is promoted effectively and efficiently. To achieve this, consumers, brand owners and manufacturers must all play their part.
At TOMRA, we believe the implementation of a deposit return scheme (DRS) is an effective way of encouraging consumers to recycle their plastic drinks containers and keep materials within the closed loop. These schemes see consumers pay a fixed deposit that is refunded when a bottle has been returned for recycling. As well as motivating consumers to take the plastic container back to be recycled, the financial incentive helps to communicate the message that plastic has value and should be treated as a resource, rather than a disposable piece of waste.
Global recycling rates
Iron and steel
Source: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation
What’s more, a DRS makes it easier to collect high-quality plastics through a reverse vending machine, which separates the contents to reduce the risk of contamination – an important consideration when maintaining food-grade standards. Many industries have been working hard to develop this holistic process in a bid to remove plastic from mixed-waste streams, reduce our reliance on downcycling and replace virgin plastics. Globally, around 40 markets have adopted DRS to date, experiencing return rates of up to 98 percent.
Tackling plastic refuse at the waste and recycling-plant stage is also a key step to accomplishing a circular economy. Thanks to a number of technological developments, sorting machines within waste/recycling plants can detect and recover plastics that have been incorrectly disposed of. This ensures more plastic is kept in the circular economy and out of the environment. Sensor-based sorting machines, for example, present an efficient, economically viable and reliable way of recovering a valuable resource and allowing it to be reused for other purposes.
The range of everyday plastic products that can become mixed up with general waste is huge, so being able to detect, recover and recycle them is a sustainable step towards achieving a closed loop. Brand owners must also start advocating the use of recycled goods and be willing to purchase recycled plastics. This, in turn, will showcase to manufacturers that there is a demand for recyclable goods.
Today, 11 leading brands, retailers and packaging companies are aiming to provide 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025. If successful, this would mean a move away from downcycling plastics, as well as the creation of a high-quality material that meets all necessary regulations.
Closing the loop
The facts surrounding waste do not lie – we need to take action on a global scale to improve how we manage plastic. Progressive schemes should be set up to allow consumers, policymakers and brand owners to adopt the mindset that plastic is not disposable, but is instead a valuable resource. Through instilling and promoting this ideology, a circular economy for plastics can be developed, ensuring products and packaging are recycled in a sustainable, energy-efficient and cost-effective manner.
If we are to take meaningful strides towards achieving global sustainability targets, we must consider the benefits of a circular economy and increase the use of post-consumer plastics within product manufacturing and packaging. We’ve already witnessed improvements in the fast-moving consumer goods market, but debates around quality, cost and cleanliness rumble on. Clearly, more work needs to be done.
At TOMRA, our vision is to lead the resource revolution. We are dedicated to improving the recycling rates of plastic and many other materials, and have been developing solutions since 1972 to support the circular economy. This year, we will build on this commitment through our Circular Economy Unit, a team devoted to supporting the circular economy, protecting the environment and encouraging sustainable practices in relation to resource productivity. By working together, we can solve our planet’s waste crisis.