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How a circular economy will assist us in the plastic crisis

Circular economy versus linear economy, recycling and our plastic crisis.

“Talking about recycling in a circular economy is generally a fraud”

Waste Management landfill expert Timothy Brake spoke with Newsroom recently, referencing the Redvale landfill, which receives 50% of Auckland’s trash, and there are various things said that make this article well worth the read. Brake considers any narrative regarding recycling in relation to progressing a circular economy “generally a fraud”. And he isn’t wrong. The problems caused by petroleum-based conventional plastics are evident—high energy and resource consumption, environmental pollution and climate change acceleration. And that said, you can’t talk about climate change without talking about fossil fuels and, by association, plastic.

In his interview, Brake proclaimed, “We are wasting our sustainability efforts on things that don’t matter when the elephant in the room is synthetics. Food waste is a smokescreen and needs to be called out as such.” How will we achieve emission reduction targets without bold bans on plastics beyond the hospitality sector? Aotearoa is importing 575 000 tonnes of virgin plastic annually. It is estimated that 60% of this resin is manufactured into packaging—dominated by single-use or short-lived products. 

Recycling plastic is a waste delay

Considering, globally, that only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, recycling is rather ineffective. Domestically we’re collecting 45,000 tonnes of plastic each year, and 90% of that is exported. People are sceptical of the recycling industry, especially given that despite rinsing and sorting, 380,000 tonnes of plastic recycling is landfilled annually due to contamination and the fact that any plastics smaller than a  yoghurt pottle. Our recycling is not failing due to a lack of participation. So we do need to discuss the feasibility of recycling and where our recyclables are even going at this point. Or what's happening to what we are disposing of? 

“At present, there are some mechanical recycling solutions for soft plastics collected in the Soft Plastic Recycling Scheme that mix these materials with HDPE (#2) to form new products, such as fence posts. Soft plastics are the filler for these new materials – and as The Ministry for the Environment states—it is not a circular solution. Soft plastics require further onshore solutions, which may go beyond mechanical recycling. Inherently, plastics are problematic. This is why they have identification codes. There's no such thing as “plastic”. Rather there are plastics and varying methods of producing plastics. We really need to reduce the burden placed on landfills by overconsumption and waste.

We also must ask ourselves how our Government continues to promote ‘easier-to-recycle’ plastics (such as types 1, 2 and 5) instead of PVC and polystyrene for food packaging. One tonne of plastic as polyethylene will produce 3.14 tonnes of CO2 eventually. According to Brake, “Even polyethylene, seen as one of the easiest plastics to recycle, is a disaster in terms of climate change.” There are certain things that plastic is good for—that we need it for and things that shouldn't be used for, like single-use packaging. And people buy things in plastic because that is the option they are presented with.

READ MORE: Plastic recycling was never going to work, and the industry knew it

Our current systems are by design. Therefore they can be redesigned!

Consider China's 2018 ban on importing contaminated recycling. It utterly stalled global recycling. No one had invested in infrastructure. Cities were burning plastics, releasing dioxins and other toxic chemicals. Mass economic growth in China meant that even seemingly useless plastic was a valuable material in their economy. And China had a lot of low-income labour to sort it. 

There is no domestic market for downcycled plastic materials, and there is no such thing as a local plastic economy because the plastic manufacturers are companies like DuPont and Exxon. Because oil and the petrochemical industry, which is, of course, also the plastics industry, are so heavily subsidised and have so much policy capture—it is almost always less expensive to buy raw feedstock or virgin plastic than recyclables and alternative materials. And so, it doesn’t work. In this article published by Newsroom, Waste Management landfill expert Timothy Brake described recycling as a waste delay tactic referring to polyethylene plastics [synthetics] as a climate disaster.  The read raises questions about whether the current ways we deal with plastic—or are considering dealing with plastic, are really the best ways to bring about real sustainability and environmental justice. 

READ MORE: Biodegradable vs compostable

Designing out plastics

All products should be designed with the intention that the raw materials will be recovered and recycled. More governments are pursuing regulations that encourage a shift toward compostable materials, brands are looking to enhance their sustainability profiles, and consumers are increasingly presented with new options they may not know how to handle. There are solutions, including novel materials and material reduction, designing for end-of-life, and revised risk assessment approaches. However, such measures are only effective through the combined actions of the public, industry, scientists and policymakers. This would imply that we are changing the premises upon which we build our relationship with materials and their sources. Our aim is not to debunk or discourage recycling but to help us think beyond recycling as it is today while considering the options available to us. 

Elsewhere, cities are discovering that bioplastics provide the benefit of diverting biodegradable waste from landfill or incineration to ‘greener’ streams such as anaerobic digestion and composting, contributing to a circular economy. Here, in Aotearoa, the compostables industry is still young. Globally, we see examples, where materials shift from plastics to compostables and collections destined for landfill, are diverted to compost facilities creating real economic value for the businesses involved. Replacing plastic packaging with certified compostable packaging makes sense, where effective recycling measures are failing due to the challenges that remain for treating and recycling food-contaminated plastics.

Composting infrastructure will have to expand for compostable packaging, with our government pledging to use 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging in local operations by 2025. We are hopeful that councils will have to make sure they have a way to collect compostable materials and actually compost them. With 13 facilities and 10 collection partners across Aotearoa, we have effective, reliable and ecological ways of recovering food scraps and packaging for composting. If you are a business looking to shift away from fossil fuel-based packaging, please get in touch.

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Here, you can also view an overview of the single-use plastics ban with suitable packaging alternatives made from plants.