The urgent need

‘Waste Plastics – our treasure in the wrong place’

Overview of a CE for Plastics based on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastics Economy report, Jan 2018]

Plastic waste is of growing environmental, social and political importance in the UK - and globally. Over 300 million tonnes of plastics are produced annually; this has risen dramatically from 15 million tonnes in 1964 and is expected to double over the next 20 years [1]. Plastics have become key materials in many strategic sectors but generation of plastics solid waste (PSW) is a major problem. Of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics produced cumulatively worldwide, 6.3 billion tonnes of waste has been created [2]. Of this amount, only around 9% has been recycled, 12% incinerated and 79% accumulated in landfills or leaked into the natural environment – a clear loss of investment, with high value products not being used / reused / repurposed. The ‘linear’ economy model (Take, Make, Dispose) has led to increasing environmental and political concerns - the amount of PSW entering the oceans has been estimated at 8 million tonnes per year and growing, which has a huge impact on marine ecosystems [3]. The recent decision by the Chinese government banning imports of plastic waste in 2018 puts further pressure on the UK [4].

A CE delivery is crucial – and we aim to help achieve this in our programme: “zero waste” vitally requires both technical and behavioural changes. Technically, in addition to reuse/ repurposing, end of life plastics may be recycled or used for energy recovery as alternatives to disposal by landfill, but recent policy reports [1,5] argue that waste plastics are a resource whose value can only be recovered by a closed loop approach, utilising more effective waste management and promoting recycling, using energy recovery as a complementary option.  Plastics recycling levels are increasing - in Europe the amount of plastics waste recycled overtook the amount of plastics disposed of by landfill for the first time in 2016. However, whereas recycling routes are well established for large volume, relatively clean waste streams such as PET and HDPE bottles, many polymeric products are more difficult to classify, separate and recycle using conventional techniques. These include multi-layered plastics, fibre reinforced plastics and cross-linked polymers e.g. thermosets and rubbers. These materials constitute a number of high volume products such as packaging, waste tyres, and printed circuit boards. There is an urgent need to develop economically and technically feasible routes of recovering these difficult to recycle polymeric materials. In parallel, there is need to develop – and strong interest in – renewably sourced virgin feedstocks, i.e. novel polymers from biomass by modification of biopolymers or from bioderived monomers (c.f. synthetic biology) – these could be capable of multiple recycles, with eventual cycle closure by composting.  Behaviourally, much also needs to be addressed, with evidence-based routes for change in both behaviour and legislation.  It is increasingly recognised that there is no ‘away’ so we can’t continue to be a “throw-away society”. The burden of the disposal or use /reuse of end of life products (especially packaging and fast moving consumer goods) is only just beginning to be shifted to producers and manufacturers (“No Zero Burden” argument [6]).  Collection strategies are crucial for consumer waste, and design using Plastics CE principles is just beginning to be embraced. We aim to address many of these pressing issues.

1. The new plastics economy: rethinking the future of plastics and catalysing action, Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2017 
2. R Geyer et al., Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made, Sci. Adv. 2017 3, 7 
3. JR Jambeck, Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, Science, 13, Feb 2015  
4. Chinese ban on plastic waste imports could see UK pollution rise, S Laville, Guardian, 2017 
5. Plastics–the Facts 2017; An analysis of European plastics production, demand and waste data, Plast Eur 2018  
29. Ilic, D.D., Eriksson O, Odlund, L, Aberg, M, No Zero Burden assumption in a Circular Economy. J.Clean.Prod, 182:352–362, 2018

© Phil Coates 2020