The Plastics Circularity Gap and How to Close It
The plastic pollution crisis has forced us to reevaluate how well we manage our resources. It is estimated by the UN that every year 13 million tonnes of plastic leak into the ocean, which is synonymous to discarding the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. Additionally, only about 9% of the plastic produced since 1950 has been recycled and returned to the economy, leading to studies that have found that the average person could be ingesting a credit card’s worth of plastic each week (5 grams). Plastic is going to continue being produced for the foreseeable future, until sustainable alternatives can be found and approved and implemented. In the meantime, expanding plastic recycling infrastructure to meet supply needs and establish a circular economy for plastics will help keep plastic out of the environment and out of us. In 2018, Google published a white paper on how to create a safe and circular economy for physical resources. One of the solutions offered was innovation in the way materials are recycled so that it mimics the way nature recycles materials, so that molecules are broken down before they are returned into commerce.
Challenges to effectively scaling the recycling of plastic are both logistics- and infrastructure-related. The logistics and infrastructure are lacking in most places to properly collect and sort waste. In the same 2018 white paper, it was noted that any efforts to eliminate hazardous chemicals from materials and consumer products at the design state is lost when optimized materials enter the mechanical recycling system and commingle with dirty, unoptimized materials prior to being recycled into consumer products. To address this obstacle, chemical recycling has gained a lot of traction but still needs to be further developed to be more widely implemented. The aim is to be able to deconstruct the chemical makeup of materials so they can. Be upcycled into higher value feedstocks for new materials. As the report states,
“Chemical deconstruction serves to both tackle the toxic legacy of existing materials in the economy and enables the perpetual cycling of atoms and molecules, without the need for new fossil resources and without subjecting future generations to the design choices of linear systems, where human and environmental health are often not part of the objective.”
Unfortunately, while this innovation is being studied and developed, the study found that even if all of the 80+ identified technologies were completely capitalized to reach full market potential, it would still be insufficient to achieve a circular economy for plastics because of other structural and market conditions that aren’t solved for yet. These include a lack of global infrastructure to collect and process waste plastics, supply chain logistics for recycled materials and re-integrating outputs of chemical recycling processes back into material production processes, unfavorable economics for chemically recycled plastics relative to that of fossil fuel-based virgin plastics, and others. This is where policy, business commitment, and consumer behavior come in.
Most recently, Google released an updated report on how to close the circularity gap and to understand how momentum towards a circular economy for plastics and towards ending our reliance on fossil fuel feedstocks could be generated simultaneously. The study grounded its analysis in the economics of plastics production and recycling, bringing together 20 years of supply/demand forecasts for plastics to develop and intervention model that quantified the impacts of various solutions (e.g., technology, investment, policy, etc.) to prioritize them into 10 strategic interventions that are either low risk or no risk under different future scenarios.
At our current rate and mode of operations, 86% of all plastics produced are expected to be landfilled, incinerated, or leaked by 2040. Today, 276 million metric tonnes of plastics are being produced annually and 93% of it (256 million metric tonnes), comes from virgin plastic supply chains made from petroleum products. The study finds that under a business-as-usual scenario (BAU), while recycled plastics reentering the economy are projected to more than triple, to 77 million metric tonnes (14%) by 2040, over the same period, 86% of plastics are also projected to be landfilled, incinerated, or leaked into the environment. The growing total volume of plastics compared with the volume of plastics from circular supply chains is what creates the plastics circularity gap. The strategic interventions identified in the study can close the plastics circularity gap 54-62% by 2040 and require $426-544 billion USD in NPV of global investments over this time period. The top 5 interventions include inventory management, consumer education, plastic tax, mechanical recycling, and chemical recycling. It is possible to create plastics through circular supply chains with a lower cash cost of production compared to virgin plastic supply chains, but it requires investment starting today of approximately $25 billion in NPV per year globally.
While a major systemic shift is needed, businesses can lead the change toward a circular economy, as the primary designers, builders, and users of materials they can demand traceability by sourcing wisely and using platforms like MikaCycle to work with vetted and certified suppliers. It is necessary to determine how to quickly and effectively mobilize the capital needed to invest in the necessary infrastructure, technologies, and integrated supply chains around the world. Governments can support circularity and its public benefit to enact enabling policies. Businesses can continue to improve product and packaging design, integrate recycled materials into products and packaging and support the innovation and engagement needed to further enable a circular economy for plastics. Finally, consumers can contribute to the circular economy by choosing circular products and services and doing their part to keep resources in use longer.