A flood of recent media coverage has highlighted how society’s addiction to plastics is pushing the environment to the limit. But behind the demonisation of plastic itself lies the need for a paradigm shift in the way we produce and consume goods – one in which we can participate as investors as well as consumers.
Despite the recent media focus on plastic as an environmental issue, its popularity as a raw material continues to rise. Half of the total amount of synthetic plastic resins and fibres ever manufactured have been produced in the past 13 years, and experts estimate that production will increase by a further 40% over the next decade; according to the American Chemistry Council, $186bn has been invested in new plastics manufacturing facilities in the US alone since 2010.
Figure 1. Growth in global plastics production, 1964-2014
Source: World Economic Forum, Ellen Macarthur Foundation, McKinsey & Company as at 2016.
Plastic: the good, the bad and the ugly
As well as being used in packaging, toys, furniture and consumer goods, plastics are in wrapping paper, ribbon, nappies, wet wipes, chewing gum and teabags; they also form the lining in crisp packets, paper cups and food and drink cans, and are used in heavier manufacturing for products including window frames, building insulation and numerous car parts such as bumpers, body panels and interior trim. There are reasons for the ongoing ubiquity of plastic: as a resource it is cheap, lightweight, waterproof and requires less energy to manufacture than many other materials.
Unfortunately, another important advantage of plastic is also the reason it creates such an issue in the environment: its durability. Plastic has become emblematic of the problems inherent in the traditional consumption-led economic model because its durability and visibility mean we are now literally seeing it everywhere. This is unsurprising when we consider that of the 8.3bn metric tonnes of plastic ever produced globally, an estimated 4.9bn tonnes have been discarded rather than incinerated or recycled.
Figure 2. Recycling plastic: more rhetoric than reality
Source: “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” by by Geyer, R; Janbeck, J R; and Law, K L. Published in Science Advances, July 2017.
While it is possible to reduce the environmental impact of plastics such as the Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) widely used in drinks bottles through more effective and comprehensive recycling, the way plastic is used in other products makes recycling almost impossible. This is because they were never designed to be recycled: they remain part of an economic model in which products are produced, used and simply thrown away.
Toeing the line
However, focusing on plastic itself risks missing the underlying issue, which is that the global economy is overwhelmingly linear.
Essentially, a linear economy is an economic system in which goods are produced, used and then, at the end of their useful life, disposed of. From a purely economic perspective, a linear economy works well because it ensures ongoing demand for new products, which promotes economic growth (especially when demand is stimulated further through designed obsolescence and single-use products). However, from the point of view of resource depletion and pollution, a linear economy is extremely problematic.
Towards a circular economy
A circular economy is focused on sustainability from the outset, with the maximum value of a product being extracted before it is repaired, reused or recycled. It requires products to be designed so that their creation, use, and reuse or recycling has minimal impact on the environment.
A truly circular economy calls for businesses not just to maximise recycling and minimise waste but to fundamentally re-engineer their products and services with a so-called ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approach. It involves intensive resource efficiency relating to water, energy and materials, reduced packaging and high recycling rates, and asks consumers to consider sustainability as a critical factor in their purchasing decisions.
Many companies are already engaging with a circular economic model to a lesser or greater degree.
Figure 3. Cradle-to-cradle circularity
For illustrative purposes only.