How the Plastics Industry Is Hijacking the Circular Economy

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What they are calling circular is a sham, just fantasy recycling so that they can maintain the status quo.

The Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners recently produced a report, "Accelerating circular supply chains for plastic." The report "surveys the current landscape of technology providers that are offering solutions for waste plastics to be repurposed for a variety of safe and high-quality materials."

Currently we live in a linear economy where, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, we "take resources from the ground to make products, which we use, and, when we no longer want them, throw them away. Take-make-waste." Instead, in a circular economy, according to the foundation:

Circular Economy

Ellen MacArthur Foundation/CC BY 2.0

1. Design out waste and pollution

"Waste and pollution are not accidents, but the consequences made at the design stage, where 80 percent of environmental impacts are decided. By changing our mindset to view waste as a design flaw and harnessing new materials and technologies, we can ensure water and pollution are not created in the first place."

2. Keep products and materials in use

In a true circular economy, products are designed so that they can be reused, repaired and remanufactured. This is a sort of an upgrade of William McDonough & Michael Braungart's Cradle to Cradle, where products are designed so that they can be taken apart and reused, recycled, or composted.

3. Regenerate natural systems

"In nature, there is no concept of waste."

So let's return to the report, formally titled Accelerating circular supply chains for plastic, downloadable from Closed Loop Partners. In the introduction, the authors note:

Plastics are ubiquitous. Found in packaging, textiles, hardware, and consumer products, they offer performance at low cost, often with environmental benefit, for countless uses. Yet most plastic packaging and too many plastic products are eventually discarded after one use.

They then acknowledge that we do a terrible job at recycling them, recovering less than 10 percent of post consumer plastics, that demand is likely to triple by 2050, and that "to address the current challenges – and the current demand – transformational technologies that keep plastics in play are needed at scale." We know that recycling is broken and there is nowhere for the waste to go, so they have come up with this.

There are at least 60 technology providers developing innovative solutions to purify, decompose, or convert waste plastics into renewed raw materials. With these available technologies, there is a clear opportunity to build new infrastructure to transform markets. These solutions can also help to decrease the world’s reliance on fossil fuel extraction, lower landfill disposal costs for municipalities, and reduce marine pollution.

© Closed Loop Partners

The report then spends many pages discussing the technologies that are available to repurpose plastics waste into valuable materials, mainly:

Purification, where plastics are dissolved in a solvent and then separated.

Decomposition, or depolymerization, "a process that involves breaking molecular bonds of the plastic to recover the simple molecules ('monomers') from which the plastic is made."

Conversion, "similar to decomposition in that the process involves breaking the molecular bonds of the plastic. A key difference is that the output products from conversion processes are often liquid or gaseous hydrocarbons similar to the products derived from petroleum refining."

All of these are at various stages of development and economic viability. The study then goes on to discuss the opportunity:

If these technologies are more widely adopted and scaled, tremendous economic value can be realized. According to our analysis, there is an existing $120 billion addressable market in the U.S. and Canada for plastics and petrochemicals that could be met, in part, by recovering waste plastics. This renewed resource could displace fossil fuels being used in these markets today. Furthermore, there are environmental benefits from recycling waste plastics back into a myriad of useful products, including reducing or avoiding environmental pollution, significant amounts of CO2 emissions and potentially hazardous chemical pollutants.

And there we have it: It is really just a more elaborate form of recycling than what we have now. It doesn't change anything really, other than trying to extract value out of the recycled materials, but it still all has to be disposed of properly by the user who tends to buy these products for convenience, collected usually by utilities at taxpayer expense, separated somehow by someone, and then put through these expensive new processes, which on their own consume energy, all to turn the stuff back into... plastic.

The plastics industry is hijacking the circular economy.

In the end, they have hijacked the concept of circular economy so that everyone can keep making disposable crap and put it through a fancier recycling process. But the cost will never be competitive with virgin plastics when natural gas producers are giving the stuff away and a vast infrastructure of petrochemical industries exists to make new plastic out of fossil fuels; that is where the money is.

This sham of a circular economy is just another way to continue the status quo, with some more expensive reprocessing. It is the plastics industry telling government "don't worry, we will save recycling, just invest zillions in these new reprocessing technologies and maybe in a decade we can turn some of it back into plastic." It ensures that the consumer doesn't feel guilty buying the bottled water or the disposable coffee cup because after all, hey, it's now circular. And look who is behind it – the plastics and recycling industry.

garbage at white house


I have noted before that all this single use plastic waste is not a design flaw, but it is the product. I wrote that To get to a circular economy we have to change not just the cup, but the culture:

The problem with the idea of the circular economy is that it becomes really complicated when you are trying to bend what was fundamentally designed as a linear economy... It exists entirely because of the development of single-use packaging where you buy, take away, and then throw away. It is the raison d'être.

The term "circular economy" is a pretence that waste can suddenly be turned into a valuable feedstock and that the recycling rate will magically go from 9 to 90 percent. This is a fantasy.

When the industry invented recycling back in the 70s, it was a way for them to avoid deposit and return laws, and to make us all feel good about disposables. Now they have stolen the circular economy to pull this trick off again. In fact, we should be demanding a zero waste economy with deposits on everything and a ban on single use plastics. That's how you solve this.