Plastic is an amazing material. Due to its properties of strength, plasticity, versatility, and durability, plastics have become synonymous with everyday life. Used in medical equipment, furniture, cars, electronics, toys, stationary, food storage, packaging, clothing - and almost everything else - it is hard to imagine a world without this miracle material. But the very properties that make plastic so indispensable are the same properties that mean all plastic produced over the last 100 years still exists somewhere in the environment today.
This persistence of plastic waste has come to the forefront recently, particularly concerning plastics in the ocean and marine environment. Our newsletter back in May ‘The Marine Plastics Problem – Protecting our Oceans’ discussed plastic pollution not only impacting our seas and beaches but also our land, biodiversity and communities.
But the properties of plastics also mean the material is a prime candidate for a circular economy approach – recovering plastic from the waste stream as a valuable resource. This is not a new idea, and recycling of plastic has been around for a long time, but where is the recycled material going? And how can we drive this approach with almost 90% of plastic not currently being recycled? And what has happened to the other 10%?
Local changes, global news
Until recently it was China that accepted much of the world’s post-consumer mixed plastic waste for recycling – over 7 million tons of it representing around 60% of the global export total. But this has changed with the ‘National Sword’ clampdown earlier this year, with the Chinese government closely inspecting and restricting such imports as the material can be replaced by the domestic supply by 2019. This will lead to a greater demand for mixed plastic waste within China helping to drive a local circular economy, but will leave an oversupply of this waste for the rest of the world. This is bad news and an alarming situation for exporters such as America, Australia, and much of Europe who rely on China taking their recyclable waste.
But with change comes opportunity – opportunities for the recycling business to grow in South East Asia, opportunities for countries to develop local circular economy approaches, and opportunities for those using the recycled material to source in-country rather than importing the material.
The Plasticity forum was launched at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in 2012 to bring plastic issues to the same level on the agenda as topics like carbon, water, or deforestation. The difference with the Plasticity approach is in focusing only on the solutions and not the downstream problems such as ocean pollution, and turning the conversation to collaboration and innovation through creative discussions. And it is this solutions-based dialogue that has helped build the success of the forum, which has since been held in nine cities globally over the last seven years.
The strength of Plasticity is in highlighting the solutions relevant in each region, and providing opportunities for collaboration. The goal is to bring together the actors, experts and innovators in this space, from big brands to designers, marketing managers, engineers, recyclers, entrepreneurs and investors as all are needed to solve, scale and replicate solutions and opportunities.
The latest Plasticity forum was held in Sydney on 31 October 2017, supported by CSR Asia. Highlights include:
The Plastic Neutral Certification launched by the Plastic Collective
Plasticity Sydney, together with the wider Boomerang Alliance ‘Beyond Plastic Pollution Conference 2017’, was the first time the plastics problem was discussed on a public stage in Australia. These events showed the conversation on plastics was more than ready to be held between communities, NGOs, business leaders, and government.
So what were the key takeaways from the Sydney event? Are they also transferable to Asia? And how do we turn this conversation on plastics and circular economy to scalable action?
We need a PULL factor. That is, we need demand for recycled plastic content. To be a true circular economy this content needs to go back into the materials used for products and packaging. The real recyclers are not the waste companies but the consumers, companies and governments that buy recycled content as they create the demand. We need this demand to pull more plastics into the recycling steam and to drive the scale of economy necessary to make the cycle commercially viable.
We need diversion opportunities. Plastic needs to be diverted into the recycling stream. Obstacles to this can be varied, but most common issues are related to collection, sorting and technology capabilities which are commonly limited by economics and lack of funds; the landfill option is often the cheapest. In Australia a solution is standardizing and implementing landfill charges across the country to put money into the system to drive recycling and create diversion opportunities. A similar approach could also be a possibility for Asia, but regional action would be needed to ensure waste is not just re-routed to other countries as a cheaper option.
We need case studies. There are many stories of initiatives and enterprises tackling the plastics problem at a small scale or local level, but to drive change we need global examples of technology and solutions viable at a company and government level to set best practices.
We need inclusive conversations. So far it tends to be the sustainability professionals and environmental community talking about the solutions to the plastic problem. But designers, engineers, and marketers also need to be at the table for these discussions so they can learn about the issues and convert these conversations into better designed and better made products for recycling as well as integrating recycled content as materials.
We need to consider other solutions. Achieving a circular economy will take time, and even then there will always be some level of plastic leakage from the cycle. Other solutions such as waste-to-energy or waste-to-fuel are also part of the plastics puzzle. Such solutions offer immediate answers to the problem, as well as a route for plastics that are not recycled or cannot yet be recycled due to limitations in local or national infrastructure.
The conversation tackling the use of plastics and the management of plastic waste is growing globally, and with the Plasticity forum likely coming to South East Asia in 2018 it is a conversation that we should all be a part of.
Stay tuned to find out more about future events and research.