Recently China has issued a ban on importing 24 kinds of solid waste (including plastic drinks bottles, containers and all mixed paper), affecting the UK that relies heavily on exporting plastic and paper for recycling. An Unearthed study shows how 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste have been shipped from British companies to China and Hong Kong since 2012, equating to two-thirds of the UK’s total waste plastic exports.
Plastic, what can we do about it?
This ban has led to the development of huge plastic stockpiles in the UK. What can we do about it? The first challenge is to improve the current recycling infrastructure to localise the loop and deal with waste ourselves. However, this may not be sufficient as global resource use is increasing and with consumption at current levels, pressure is now being focused on companies to shift away from throw away industrialised economic models.
Closing the loop
The circular economy offers an alternative to the traditional linear take-make-waste economy. It keeps resources in use for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value from them, then recovering and regenerating products/materials at the end of each service life. This much desired ‘closing of the loop’ can be achieved through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, refurbishing, and recycling.
Accenture estimates the circular economy is the world’s largest business opportunity with the potential to unlock $4.5 trillion growth by 2030. Research by Ellen Macarthur Foundation further reiterates this point as findings show that 80% of today’s consumer goods (worth $3.2 trillion) are unrecovered5. This can be seen as a business opportunity for ‘end-of-line’ business to grow and use consumer waste as an input into their processes. It also emphasizes the need for a radical shift in product and service design away from the short-sighted methods of today towards carefully thought-out long-lasting design – whereby the embedded value in ‘end-of-life’ products is recaptured.
The circular economy in practice
Adidas - have teamed up with Parley to design a shoes and clothing line produced via 3D printing from ocean waste plastic. A pair of trainers reuses 11 rescued plastic bottles, and feature laces, heel lining and sock liner covers made from other recycled materials. They aim to create a million pairs of shoes made from ocean plastic waste this year.
Pentatonic - create furniture from rubbish, transforming drinking bottles into chairs and tables, and cracked phone screens into high end glassware. The company aims to "radically transform consumption culture" with a range of products created from food, electrical, plastic and textile waste. The company are introducing a circular economy system by encouraging customers to sell back goods to Pentatonic for recycling and reuse.
In the 1990s, the carpet manufacturer changed its approach from the traditional industrial model of carpet production towards a business model focused on sustainability. They closed the loop through the use of renewable energy, the elimination of waste and recycling, and the reuse of materials through their modular carpet manufacturing techniques. That led Interface to a 95% decrease in carbon emissions from 1996 to 2016.
Are we on the cusp of fundamental change? Perhaps circular economy logic can help couple environmental and financial goals, play a more enhanced role in the waste lifecycle and kickstart the transformation to a more environmentally-conscious and sustainable future.