How can we integrate Plastics into the Circular Economy model?

By October 24, 2018 features

The World Circular Economy Forum was taking place in Japan from 22 till 24th October. It consisted of 17 plenary and parallel sessions showcasing the world’s best circular economy solutions for business, cities, and finance, and attracted participants and attendees from all over the world. The discussion of plastic pollution took place during the Circular Economy (CE) Plastics Session.

The principal focus of the meeting was how to make plastic circular. The session comprised the introductory speech by Daniel Calleja, director general of the European Commission’s DG Environment, the presentation by David Katz (Plastic Bank) and two plenary panels with 3 participants each.

First, Mr. Calleja outlined that “global production of plastic has increased by 20 times since 1960, and it is expected to double in the next 20 years”. Nowadays plastic makes a substantial part of our everyday lives; it serves multiple purposes – we use it in everyday objects, construction, products packaging. One of the most awakening remarks that Mr. Calleja made was the following: by 2050 if nothing is done, there will be more plastics in the oceans than fish. Also, he provided the data on the situation in this sector in the EU.

It was clearly articulated from the beginning:

“We don’t want to demonize plastics, what we want is to make plastic circular”.

Mr. Calleja ended up his introductory speech with a call to create a partnership of nations and companies as well as to utilize a global, holistic approach tackling the complex plastics issue.

Presentation by David Katz, Founder, and CEO of Plastic Bank

David Katz, an enthusiastic entrepreneur, aims at monetizing plastic waste and improving people’s lives. His solution to creating a circular economy in plastic is to use plastic biomass as a currency.

To better explain his approach, David uses the metaphor of a tap with running water: instead of starting to clean the mess, we first need to turn the tap off! Likewise, Mr. Katz suggested instead of cleaning the oceans from plastic, starting with getting rid of the main plastic pollution source.

David believes that “we can’t convince people to recycle against their will”, we have to motivate them. With his initiative, plastics turns into an unlimited opportunity to make money.

According to David, it works the following way: people from communities in various countries collect plastics and bring it to Plastic Bank collection centres. In return for their collected waste, they receive money. This material is called ‘social plastic’ since “its value is transferred through the lives of people who encounter it, rich or poor”.

David adds:

“We create a way for every single person in the world to participate in the extraction of plastic before it goes into the ocean”.

Mr. Katz believes that every organization or person has an opportunity to be plastic-neutral. He underlines how powerful this new ecosystem is – the core value of the organization is to gather people, gather material, gather the world.

Concrete proposals to engage plastics in the CE

During the consecutive panel discussions, various specialists from different countries voiced their concern about the gravity of plastic pollution situation worldwide. Outlined, here are the concrete ideas on how to achieve a circularity proposed during two panels:

  1. The circularity of plastics is possible, but it requires drastic changes. A lot of focus should be on the design of products. From a design stage, one has to keep in mind the product recyclability.
  2. Raise awareness, be transparent with information. Consumers are not fully aware yet of the impact of their consuming habits. We have to think how we can consume differently.
  3. We ought to address the whole value chain:
  • Create incentives for eco-friendly design of packaging materials;
  • Boost the young recycling market;
  • Support quality initiatives for products from recycling materials;
  • Avoid unnecessary packaging.
  1. We have to make sure we collect all our plastic waste. Waste is a resource, it has a value, which is the starting point of CE.
  2. Shift away from single-use plastic to multiple-use. For instance, encourage more tap water drinking to avoid using plastic water bottles; get rid of plastic shopping bags.
  3. Biodegradable plastic is not the answer, it doesn’t address the main issue of pollution and doesn’t make part of a circular economy. First, it creates an impression that one can throw it away anywhere, it will decompose by itself anyway which is wrong from many points of view. Second, this type of plastics doesn’t make part of a circular model, it cannot be reused later on.
  4. Enable change from an investment perspective. We need national governments working together sharing standards of circularity. We also require regulatory frameworks within which local governments can operate.
  5. Companies and individuals, governments and communities should inspire each other to change their behaviour.
  6. It is important to behave within the circular model without compromising on the functions of a product – innovation should focus on the material or design, not the functionality of an item!
  7. Don’t market the problem, but the solution we are offering.

“Plastic is not good or bad, it is about how you use it!”

Final wrap-ups of the session

At the end of the session, Mr. Calleja gave his final comments on the matter. He encouraged to make more use of non-virgin, recycled materials; reminded that regulations have their influence and oftentimes they effectively push the needed changes; and emphasized that we need more on-the-ground interaction platforms for businesses. He ended up reminding the audience about Sustainable Development Goals which is a universal agenda for environmental, social and economic sustainability that we all need.

All in all, the WCEF 2018 session on plastics was productive from many points of view. It became a meeting point for people from various countries, backgrounds, ages, cultures, professional fields and interests. They all had a chance to share their vision and get to know about others’ visions of the same issue. Such events are helpful to realize the collective sense of responsibility for the future, and that plastics issue concerns all layers of society worldwide. However, what matters most is to see if any of the proposals mentioned during the session will lead to practical implementations in the nearest future. Otherwise, what was the point of it all?