Plastics: the circular economy opportunity

Posted on 13 Oct 2022 by The Manufacturer

Companies and consumers are grappling with a growing number of challenges including supply chain shortages, rising costs and geopolitical tensions. It would be easy to demote the climate emergency to further down our list of priorities, but it would be foolish to stall the progress we and many others have already made especially when it comes to reducing plastic waste.

Today, it’s important for companies to keep sustainability at the heart of their operations.  For companies to achieve true success, there needs to be a mindset shift away from thinking in a linear way towards adopting a more circular approach that allows the world’s natural resources to be used sparingly and then regenerated. When working with plastic it’s vital we focus on reuse to eliminate plastic waste and by doing so we can help eliminate pollution too, offering a potential reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Pressure is mounting on multiple fronts forcing businesses to act, ranging from government legislation, investor and consumer pressure as well as the extreme climate changes we’re witnessing on a more regular basis.

The business case for a circular business model

There is a strong business case to embrace the circular economy. According to research by Bain & Company, a circular business model is good for business, can spur growth, reduce costs, and build resilience.

Bain & Company’s research, in partnership with the World Economic Forum, reports that business leaders are starting to feel a sense of urgency about embracing circularity. Supply chain executives in the study claim to be planning to double their share of revenue from circular products and services by 2030. More than half of the executives surveyed view circularity as a prerequisite for being best in class in the future. As more businesses embrace a circular business model, the benefits to society will increase.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation set out the business case for a circular approach to plastic packaging.  They state that globally, replacing just 20% of single-use plastic packaging with reusable alternatives offers an opportunity worth at least $10bn (US).  Reuse models can bring major user and business benefits including superior user experiences, user insights, brand loyalty and cost savings.

If the business case was not enough for us to act, the annual publication of the UN’s SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) provides a constant reminder that we must act now to avoid yet more damage to our fragile planet.

Plastic can be good

It’s easy to point a finger at plastic and blame it for many of the environmental problems but we should remember that plastic can be good. When the plastic bag was introduced over 60 years ago, hopes were high that it would make a significant environmental contribution as plastic embodied progress and convenience. It was designed to replace the paper bag that was thought to be harming the planet, plastic was to be ‘nature’s saviour’, introduced to protect natural resources and save the trees.

Fast forward to today and climate change and sustainability sit high on corporate agendas and plastic poses a problem, but it shouldn’t. It still embodies progress and convenience, but inconsistent recycling habits and a lack of facilities mean we fail to derive as much benefit from these materials as we should. Work continues at pace to develop alternative materials derived from more sustainable sources however until these are available at scale we need to tackle the single-use nature of many of the products manufactured from plastic rather than ceasing to use the material itself. As exciting as innovation is, scaling is never as fast as we need. There are alternatives to oil derived plastic materials however, these are not currently available at sufficient levels. Additionally, the end of life systems such as composting facilities that allow bio-plastics to be broken down to soil nutrients are not widely available on a global scale.

As a member of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, we embrace the circular economy vision they launched to help businesses adopt a circular approach to plastics which is perfectly illustrated in their butterfly diagram. We do our bit to keep materials in circulation by reusing, remanufacturing and recycling them.

Collaboration will be fundamental to combining resources and expertise to combat climate change. As such, innovation will yield practical solutions that make a real difference in shaping a greener future. Designing without thinking where materials come from, and where they will end up, is now unimaginable and we hope that adopting a circular approach will one day be the norm.

Plastic recycling is changing and technology improving

Plastic recycling is changing at pace. This is fantastic news however the increased demand for recycled plastic poses challenges as supply struggles to keep pace with demand. This is resulting in soaring prices and good quality recycled plastics can cost very close to the price of virgin. A key driver towards the use of recycled materials is a financial one – in the past they have generally cost substantially less than virgin materials which means that manufacturers were able to improve margins whilst at the same time decreasing their use of single-use plastic. If recycled and virgin materials are the same cost the financial motivation for using recycled is diminished.

One way of solving the issue of the limited supply of recycled plastic is to invest in new technology which can deliver incredible results. We have seen huge steps forward in mechanical recycling technologies that increase our ability to recover and reuse materials whilst retaining as much as possible of their value. In the past most recycled materials needed to be black or very dark in colour but new separation and cleaning technologies mean that this does not now need to be case.

Last year, we launched the world’s first global initiative that allows retailers to implement a closed-loop clear polythene recycling system. Polyloop, is a global Clear Polythene Recycling Process which enables us to provide a closed-loop recycling system for clear LDPE (low-density polyethylene) flexible films. It offers fashion retailers such as Superdry a genuine circular economy and the ability to source clear LDPE film containing at least 30% post-consumer recycled material from any of its production sites in the world. The process sees post-consumer LDPE film collected, cleaned, and processed within the UK before being distributed to Mainetti’s manufacturing sites around the world.

We are also seeing exciting developments around chemical recycling where waste plastics are broken down into constituent parts that can be used to make new materials. These processes can be game-changers in that, when combined with efficient household waste management and recycling systems, they have the opportunity to significantly reduce the amount of materials that head for landfill or incineration.

Legislating behaviour

Relying solely on innovation will not bring about change quick enough. Governments also need to act, and one way for them to do this is to legislate change.

California has led the US in single-use plastic restrictions, banning plastic bags, discouraging the use of plastic straws and utensils and working to crack down on microplastics. The state’s latest bill, regarded as the world’s most comprehensive plastics-related legislation, declares that 30% of plastic items sold or bought be recyclable by 2028 and economic responsibility falls to producers. The EU and Britain have also introduced their own legislation in the form of plastic taxes to curb plastic waste.

It was reported in the UK earlier this year that plastic bag use had reduced significantly, falling by 20% after a 10p charge was introduced by the government.  The average person now buys three single-use plastic bags a year down from 140 in 2014 according to government sources. The Welsh Government is considering going one step further and banning single-use bags and plastic wet wipes.

Is a ban better than a levy? A ban presents its own problems and poses the question of what to do with the plastic already in circulation. The most likely solution is to send it to landfill, something we’re trying to avoid.

Ultimately, there are other pressures that will help mitigate change in the form of investors and consumers whose focus on sustainability intensifies. According to a study by GlobeScan, between 2019 and 2021, people altered their shopping habits to actively avoid single-use plastic packaging, indicating that consumers are willing to change their behaviour to reduce plastic waste. Statistics like this will surely act as a catalyst for companies to reduce and eventually eliminate plastic waste. It’s a wakeup call for businesses, when consumers vote with their wallets, businesses need to act.

With challenge comes opportunity

Finding solutions requires new ways of thinking and we are already starting to see some exciting circular innovations. The world’s largest toy maker LEGO last year unveiled a prototype of its iconic plastic brick made from recycled plastic bottles and said that it expects to start selling recycled plastic bricks by next year after further testing.

The food industry led by the supermarkets are working at pace to minimise their environmental impact leading to a whole roster of innovations combining a mixture of common sense and true innovation to reduce the use of single-use plastic. For example, in Britain, supermarkets recently announcing the switch to clear plastic milk tops, phasing out the use of coloured milk tops as these are difficult to recycle. Unlike fully recyclable milk bottles, coloured caps cannot currently be recycled back into food grade packaging. Introducing the clear caps enables retention of the material for reuse within the food sector.  It may seem like a small step, but as a commodity product bought in its hundreds of millions every week, such a small change can make a massive difference.

Alternatives to plastic are also being found.  Fruit and vegetables wrapped in plastic as a way of keeping it fresh is becoming more unfashionable, but unpacking it has its problems. Plastic wrappings for products such as cucumbers, apples and other fresh products have been used as protection for delicate skins but also to extend shelf life. Apeel Science is a company based in California, US, that has come up with an innovative way to eliminate the use of single-use shrink wrap plastic on fresh fruit and vegetables, whilst at the same time tackling food waste.

Apeel has developed an edible coating that can make avocados, citrus and other types of fruit and vegetables last twice as long as usual by using a tasteless edible coating made from plant materials, eliminating the need for single-use plastic.

The stars align for change

The stars are now aligning to demand change in how we use plastic products for as long as possible before efficiently recycling them at the end of their useful lives. This places undeniable pressure for businesses to act. A combination of government legislation, customer and investor pressure and the climate emergency make it crucial that businesses increase their sustainability efforts.

If they are to be successful in this, the sustainability strategy must form an integral part of the wider corporate objectives and not be some form of bolt-on or addition. Business and sustainability objectives must be aligned and must not compete with each other and be designed to evolve as the business does. Most important you must measure progress – what you cannot measure, you cannot improve.

Ultimately, if we want to tackle climate change and reduce our environmental impact, we must place more value on the goods we produce, buy, and use. We live in a world of finite materials and it’s time to adopt a circular way of thinking to protect them before it’s too late

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About the author

Keith Charlton is Mainetti’s Chief Operations Officer and since 2016, has been the Group’s Director of Operations and Supply Chain with responsibility for Manufacturing, Reuse, Supply Chain, Quality, and Health and Safety. He is a member of the Institute of Directors and a graduate member of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. He has also received the NEBOSH National Diploma in Occupational Health and Safety.