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Over 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year for use in a wide variety of applications, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
At least 14 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris found. Plastic pollution has a severe effect on marine life and ecosystems beyond the ocean.
One potential solution is applying a circular economy model to plastics.
What is a circular economy?
In our current unsustainable economy, businesses extract materials from the Earth, make products and packaging using them, and then they are eventually thrown away as waste. This process is defined as ‘linear’ and contributes to environmental issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.
In a circular economy, waste is not produced in the first place. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy is based on three principles: eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials, and regenerate nature.
It involves exploring ways to ‘design out’ waste when products are still at the concept stage.
What is a plastic circular economy and how can it help the climate crisis?
Raffi Schieir, director of the Prevented Ocean Plastic programme, says sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing plastic products will prevent waste and reduce fossil fuel consumption.
He said: “A truly circular economy on plastic would prevent ocean plastic pollution because, instead of becoming waste, plastic would retain its value and not end up as litter and pollution.
“Once you used a product in plastic you would recycle it - or collect a small refund through a deposit return scheme for doing so - it would then be recycled into a new product. The next product you buy would then contain 100% recycled material, and so the circle continues.
“Recycling initiatives are a key element of the circular economy, but our current recycling systems are broken. Just 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled.
“Shockingly, in the UK, roughly two-thirds of our plastic waste is sent overseas to be recycled Plastic waste that is dumped abroad can be blown into rivers and waterways, and Greenpeace has even found British plastic dumped by the side of the road, abandoned in illegal dumps and set on fire in Turkey and Malaysia.”
How are the plastic and climate crises entwined?
A 2021 study by ZSL and Bangor University collated evidence that shows the global issues of marine plastic pollution and climate change exacerbate one another, creating a “dangerous cycle”.
Researchers identified three significant ways that the climate crisis and plastic pollution are dangerously linked.
First, plastic contributes to global greenhouse gases throughout its life cycle, from production (which is heavily reliant on fossil fuels) through to disposal.
The second is how extreme weather, like floods and typhoons associated with climate change will disperse and therefore worsen plastic pollution.
Finally, marine species and ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to plastic pollution. Marine species ingest or are entangled in plastic debris, which causes severe injuries and death.
Plastic pollution also threatens food safety and quality, human health, and coastal tourism, and contributes to climate change.
What are examples of a plastic circular economy model in action?
Replenish is an LA-based household product firm that replaces single-use products with refill bottles that can be used with multiple concentrated liquids.
It uses concentrated liquids to cut down on waste, as a typical bottle of cleaner is 90% water and less than 10% actual valuable ingredients.
Meanwhile, cosmetics retailer Lush has redesigned some of its liquid personal care products to be sold as solid formulations that replace liquid products in plastic bottles. Their ‘naked’ range includes shampoo, conditioner, body wash, toner, and deodorant.