The Plastic Waste Problem of our Linear Economy

The Plastic Waste Problem of our Linear Economy

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Everyday, we read the news about climate change and how it threatens our environment. Climate change has different reasons, but is majorly caused by the way we produce and consume things: For example, manufacturing of materials and products take up more than 50% of the world’s global energy supply, and is responsible for 20% of our global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Also, 99% of the things we buy from manufacturing are trashed within six months. All these habits threaten our health and ecosystemsIn this regard, it’s important to keep in mind that the garbage that comes out of your house is just the tip of the iceberg. Even if we could recycle 100 % of our personal waste, it doesn‘t get to the core of the problem, as 70 times more rubbish is created before, i.e. during production (see Figure 1).

 

Figure 1: Domestic vs. Industry Waste: the tip of an iceberg

In fact, a major reason for the destructive use of our resources lies in our linear production model. This “Cradle to Grave” paradigm means that once a natural resource is extracted, it follows the one-way route of processing, manufacturing, usage and disposal, where it contaminates the environment (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: The Linear Production Model (Source: trashhero.org)

Many of the “throw away” products are made from fossil-based plastic, which was once considered an invaluable material, but nowadays harms our environment. The problem with fossil-based plastics is that its production has increased dramatically since the 1950s (see Figure 3), so as of today, we produce and consume over 380 million tons of fossil-based plastics per year.

                                                Figure 3: The Dramatic Rise of Plastic Production (Source: DFW Zero Waste Alliance)

So is plastic all “evil”? Certainly not, if we used and trashed much less, even for the sake of a convenience: Until far into the 20th century, plastics (and other materials like glass and metal) were treated as valuable materials and thus collected again and again for reuse. Products were designed for long shelf life and long-lasting use. Shops sold their food and beverages in containers for personal refills (for example, milk cans). Even when plastics became a mass product after World War II, people initially treated them just as carefully as conventional materials and packaging.

With the Western economical recovery starting in the late 1950s, however, people wanted to buy more and more, so our demand for resources boomed. To keep up, the industry mass-produced plastics from cheap oil and gas, but never had to worry about plastic waste – so our “throw-away society” was born.

To solve the plastic waste problem, can’t we simply recycle? More than 40 years after the launch of the first universal recycling system, still only 14% of plastic packaging is actually collected for recycling. The consequences are drastic: Every year, over 8 million tons of plastics leak into the oceans. Over time, each plastic can break down into 10,000 microplastic pieces. 70 % of fish have eaten plastic and 55 % were already found with microplastics in their body. If we don’t change, there will be more plastics than fish in the sea by 2050. Of course, we must clean up the oceans from plastics as soon as possible, but with 8 mio. tons of new plastic per year, these clean-ups can only treat the symptoms – but not the root causes – of our plastic waste problem. Trying to solve our environmental challenges by addressing the outcomes and effects, without addressing the underlying cause is like trying to fix a flat tire by pumping in more air without first closing the hole in the tire or as Albert Einstein has already emphasized: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Figure 4: Ocean Clean Ups trying to tackle the Plastic Problem

So clearly, we find ourselves in a system of crisis. We call this mass production, but the reality is, it is mass destruction. Our previous way of producing things is wasteful and is indeed harming our planet. Cleaning up and recycling alone cannot handle the plastic waste problem, until we actually start re-designing our products and materials to be renewable (i.e. with little to no waste), keeping them in the loop of a circular economy.

Aside from using less plastics, can we then replace plastics with something more renewable? That’s a great idea, but in today’s reality this is still difficult to achieve:

On the one hand, plastics are still cheap and have many practical advantages over other materials: For example, plastics are light and easy to shape, and therefore can be tailor-made for their respective purpose. Depending on the product’s requirements, such as mechanical strength, toughness, temperature or chemical resistance, plastics are continuously improved. On the other hand, considering whole life cycles, other materials may even be less eco-friendly than fossil-based plastics: For example, it takes almost twice as much energy to produce a bag from paper than from plastic, and significantly more energy to produce and transport a bottle from glass than from plastic. Renewable biopolymers, however, have the great potential to replace fossil-based plastics by up to 90%!

But finding the right renewable material is not easy, because technical and environmental impact information can be quite complex and difficult to compare between different materials and products (this is also why we created Circuteria). And aside from the right renewable information, we also need a change in values and policies to solve our plastic waste problem: When choosing materials and products, it is still more tempting to go for the cheaper fossil-based “plastic solution“ instead. However, if the environmental damage of fossil-based plastics would be priced in, the renewable transformation could happen much faster!

So clearly, we find ourselves in a system of crisis. We call this mass production, but the reality is, it is mass destruction. Our previous way of producing things is wasteful and is indeed harming our planet. Cleaning up and recycling alone cannot handle the plastic waste problem, until we actually start re-designing our products and materials to be renewable (i.e. with little to no waste), keeping them in the loop of a circular economy.

Aside from using less plastics, can we then replace plastics with something more renewable? That’s a great idea, but in today’s reality this is still difficult to achieve: On the one hand, plastics are still cheap and have many practical advantages over other materials: For example, plastics are light and easy to shape, and therefore can be tailor-made for their respective purpose. Depending on the product’s requirements, such as mechanical strength, toughness, temperature or chemical resistance, plastics are continuously improved. On the other hand, considering whole life cycles, other materials may even be less eco-friendly than fossil-based plastics: For example, it takes almost twice as much energy to produce a bag from paper than from plastic, and significantly more energy to produce and transport a bottle from glass than from plastic. Renewable biopolymers, however, have the great potential to replace fossil-based plastics by up to 90%!

But finding the right renewable material is not easy, because technical and environmental impact information can be quite complex and difficult to compare between different materials and products (this is also why we created Circuteria). And aside from the right renewable information, we also need a change in values and policies to solve our plastic waste problem: When choosing materials and products, it is still more tempting to go for the cheaper fossil-based “plastic solution“ instead. However, if the environmental damage of fossil-based plastics would be priced in, the renewable transformation could happen much faster!

That being said, there’s literally no way that we can clean all our rubbish or build enough recycling infrastructure to handle the material input until we actually start designing things fundamentally different by designing out waste and keep materials and products in use following the circular economy concept.