Going Circular is shaping up to tackle plastic pollution

Accounts from leading analysts within UN research groups all agree – the world’s addiction to plastic consumption has led to a plastic pollution epidemic. With new analysis suggesting that even the poor current efforts to recycle plastics are in fact being overestimated, the shift to circular economy strategies seems to be the only way to overcome the entirely man-made scourge.

A mounting (and mountainous) plastic problem

This month, the World Economic Forum released new statistics on the global state of recycling in 2022. Among other eye-watering stats, its key finding is that plastic waste recycling levels in the US (among the world’s biggest plastic polluters) have been significantly overestimated. While it’s widely believed that the country has attained a 9% recycling rate, in 2021 only 5-6% of the 40 million tonnes of plastic waste was actually recycled. Between 2019 and 2020, plastic recycling levels dropped by 5.7%, equivalent to 290 million pounds of additional waste left unmanaged.

The reasons for this lack of plastic recycling are many. The legacy of policy decisions is chief among them. Another key factor is that countries like China and Turkey have imposed import bans on plastic waste, forcing the US and other leading waste exporters to come up with alternative solutions.

Overall, the report estimates that global production of plastic waste has now exceeded 400 million tons of plastic waste yearly. As well as soil degradation and food-chain poisoning, perhaps the most glaring issue with this unsustainable state of affairs is that between 75-199 million tonnes of plastic are currently floating around in the world’s oceans.

Backed from the top – Nations and leaders throw their weight behind plastic pollution solutions

An epidemic needs a cure, and a cure to such a wide-ranging problem needs to be backed from the top. In March 2022, 175 nations signed a landmark agreement at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, to create a legally binding agreement by 2024 to ‘end plastic waste’. Once drafted and ratified, this agreement will provide the necessary framework for international cooperation on properly managing the whole lifecycle of plastic, including its sustainable production, design and disposal.

While the details will be hammered out over the next two years, the resolution promises to be based on the latest scientific measures and solutions and will prompt international collaboration at the highest level.

At the individual state level, the Abu Dhabi single-use plastic bags ban begun on June 1st. In preparation for the ban, leading supermarkets such as Carrefour have started offering reusable alternatives such as plant-based bags made of starch and other innovative options. This is part of the UAE’s wider efforts to replace all manner of single-use plastic products with sustainable alternatives. This highlights that eliminating plastic waste at the point of consumption is as important as recycling it, if not more so.

While in Saudi Arabia, Aramco, the world’s biggest oil producer, has joined the pledge to adopt circular economy practices. The Aramco Research Center at KAUST (ARC KAUST) was opened this month, with the aim of accelerating the development of low-carbon and circular solutions for the energy industry using advanced analytics.

New Circular Innovations this month

Superworms that can eat plastic: The dream of using hordes of plastic-eating bacteria and more complex bio-organisms is not a new one. We’ve reported on previous breakthroughs in this area in 2022 and even earlier. However, this month saw an exciting new development as researchers from the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences at the University of Queensland discovered that the common Zophobas morio “superworm” can successfully shred, consume and gain energy from polystyrene. After their successful tests, the team now aims to create an operational recycling plant where superworms can convert commercially viable quantities of polystyrene into useful bioplastics.

Certified circular polypropylene (PP) closes the loop on soft plastic food packaging: Sabic, a global chemical industry leader, has teamed up with Heinz, Tesco and Berry to trial a new PP packaging product that can be returned by consumers, to be converted into recycled oils. This trial is part of the participants’ wider efforts to make 100% of their packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. It’s also a crucial test of consumer willingness to play their part and return the empty packaging to the collection points.

Circular Economy on plastics starts to take shape

The World Economic Forum predicts that circular economy practices will create around $4.5 trillion in economic benefits in the years 2022 to 2030. The environmental imperative to curb plastic pollution is finally being met with the economic incentive to do so. Unsustainable business practices around plastic waste are being unacceptable with more socially conscious consumers, and the logistical costs of ‘business as usual’ are mounting. With these drivers in place, the move to the circular economy model is all but guaranteed to accelerate in the commercial sphere, particularly with market leaders who want to show their green credentials.