Exploring Plastic and its Alternatives in a Circular Economy

Type “pollution” in Google Images and alongside photos of billowing smokestacks, you’ll see landfills brimming with plastic, plastic bottles washed up on beaches, plastic floating in bodies of water. Type in “plastic” and you’ll find much the same, linking to articles with titles such as “A Tidal Wave of Plastic,” “The Plastic Crisis is Here,” and “Fix the Broken Plastic Material System.” As one of the most visible materials that enters the waste stream, it’s easy to single out plastic as the source of all environmental evil. And though there are many other pollutants, there’s good reason to put a target on plastic—only 9 percent of the world’s plastic is recycled, and each year 11 million metric tons of plastic waste enters our oceans. A 2020 study by the Pew Charitable Trust and SYSTEMIQ found that by 2040, if we fail to act, the volume of plastic in the market will double, the yearly volume of plastic entering the oceans will nearly triple, and ocean plastic stocks will quadruple. Without serious change, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

The visibility of plastic waste and its impact on the environment have galvanized a significant public backlash, and many municipalities, states, and entire countries and regions have moved to ban plastics (often in the form of bags and straws). The private sector has also responded, with many companies making ambitious commitments to reduce plastic waste, use recycled content, and adopt alternative materials. But it’s a bit more complicated than it seems—and in order to understand how to solve the problem, we need to look at the entire plastic infrastructure.

The pros and cons of plastic

Plastics are durable, cheap, lightweight, and easily manufactured. They’re incredibly versatile, allowing for an abundance of different varieties and applications, and they can even replace high performance materials like metals and technical ceramics. But they’re made from fossil fuels – crude oil and natural gas. According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, by 2050 the plastics industry will consume 20 percent of the world’s oil production and 15 percent of our annual carbon budget.

And there’s another issue: most of the plastic we produce is designed to be used just once and then thrown away, in a linear take-make-waste model rather than a circular one, in which materials are cycled back. This relationship to plastic is wasteful and unsustainable, and it needs to change radically in order to extend the lifetime of resources and keep materials circulating through the economy. As you can probably imagine, changing our society’s relationship to plastic is no simple task—it requires making sweeping, systemic changes in both the way plastic is produced and the way it’s used. Without fundamental redesign and innovation, nearly 30 percent of plastic packaging will never be reused or recycled.

Can plastic be circular?

A circular economy is one that moves away from fossil fuel extraction, while also establishing a clear end-of-life pathway to recover materials. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy initiative proposes a three-pronged approach to designing a circular economy for plastic:

  1. Eliminate unnecessary plastics. This means rethinking packaging by developing new delivery models with reusable packaging, or when possible, no packaging at all.
  2. Reduce the use of virgin plastic and ensure no materials are lost by designing all plastic products to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable. (The circular economy prefers reuse to recycling – although recycling is important, it is a process that requires much more energy than a reuse model.) This also means developing and funding an infrastructure that collects and circulates plastic, keeping them in the economy and out of the environment.
  3. Innovate quickly and at large scale to create new business models, design new products and packaging, technologies, materials, and collection systems.

Once we’ve reduced our use of plastic, the reuse model is the next best option – it doesn’t require materials to be broken down or reconstructed industrially. It’s been gaining popularity recently, with businesses, governments, and research initiatives exploring the possibilities of reusing packaging and other materials. Reuse models rethink ownership of products and materials and have the potential for significant reductions in the costs of packaging and transportation. They can help optimize operations – by sharing reusable packaging across brands, sectors, or industrial networks (think soft drink bottles), companies can also share economies of scale for distribution and logistics. And they can help build brand loyalty through deposit and reward schemes (among other benefits).

Alternatives to plastic

After reduction and reuse, we need to look at the possibilities for material innovation. Many companies are exploring bio-based plastics, biopolymers, and compostable alternatives. But these substitutes present significant challenges as well as opportunities. Many of these are infrastructure challenges – take compostable alternatives, for example. As compostable bioplastics enter the market in higher volumes, industrial composting infrastructure isn’t prepared to process them. In the US, there are only around 185 full-scale commercial composting facilities that accept food waste, and even fewer take compostable packaging. (Most certified-compostable plastics will only break down in the highly controlled context of an industrial facility, not in a backyard compost pile. For more on this, see our article on composting and biodegradation.) In a landfill, outside the specific setting of a composting facility, compostable plastics won’t decompose at the same rate, and much of their value will be lost. And if placed in a recycling stream of non-compostable plastics, compostable plastics can contaminate this process. That’s why it’s crucial for there to be an infrastructure in place both for processing and collecting these materials.

For now, compostable alternatives are ideal for using in targeted applications, to ensure that they get composted correctly rather than being sent into the wrong waste stream. These include products that come into contact with food, such as plates, bowls, tea bags, labels on fruits and other packaging materials for food. Providing compostable packaging in these contexts can also help divert food scraps into compost processing streams rather than landfills.

When working with alternative materials, manufacturers also need to think about their upstream impacts. Biobased materials like corn should come from responsibly managed sources, and their impact on water and land – and other unintended consequences – should be taken into account too. Some crops require high-impact inputs, such as pesticides, machinery (that runs on fossil fuels), labor, and water. When we examine these alternative materials holistically, using a life cycle assessment perspective, we get a much more complete understanding of how they really compare to plastics. In most cases, these plastic alternatives and the systems to process them are not yet in place, scaled sufficiently, or appropriate for widespread use in a way that could replace plastic. This means that there’s plenty of room for more innovation and advocacy now and in the coming years.


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