Plastic and the Circular Economy

Plastic is everywhere these days and researchers are only beginning to understand the true impact of plastic on the environment and life as we know it. According to a report from the World Economic Forum in 2016, at the current rate of plastic production, there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the ocean by 2050 [1].

The problem is that plastic never really goes away. Once upon a time, you could find diagrams that showed how long it took different materials to break down in landfills and in oceans. But now we know that plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. These pieces are being found everywhere, in the air we breathe, in the food we eat, even in our own bloodstreams. Possibly even more concerning is that these microplastics have the ability to bind to chemicals like PCBs and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) or even harmful bacteria [2]. It’s still unknown how this can impact human health but this is an area of active research.

Source: World Economic Forum [1].

All of this is to say that it’s in our best interest to explore reducing our dependence on plastic which can be done in part by following a circular economy model. According to another study by the World Economic Forum and Kearney (a global management firm), approximately 50% of all plastic produced right now is intended for single use. 

This provides us with a huge opportunity to drastically reduce our dependence on plastic and the demand for plastic relatively quickly. In fact, this same report suggests that if we recycled/reused 10 to 20% of all single use plastic packaging, we could reduce the amount of plastic going into the world’s oceans by at least 45% (and possibly closer to 90%) [3].

Nonprofit organizations, like the Ocean Cleanup are working to remove plastic from our oceans. However, this process is expensive so it is far better to reduce the amount of plastic entering the oceans in the first place.

While this has more to do with the commercial production and recycling of plastic, it does still provide individuals with a pathway forward as well. By understanding the true impact of single use plastic, we can reduce our consumption of it and when we really need to use single use plastic, we can try to reuse them when and where we can.

One of the major problems with single use plastic is that it is used once and then thrown away. However, in 100 years, that plastic will still exist. But, if you take that single use plastic and reuse it, not only do you get more use out of that item, you also reduce the number of additional single use plastic you need. For example, let’s say you purchase plastic single use cups for a backyard BBQ. Instead of tossing those cups into the trash, give them a wash and save them for the next BBQ. They won’t last forever, but even using them at least 1 more time, rather than buying another pack of cups to just toss, will reduce your plastic consumption.

We've heard the phrase, "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" but now we're also learning to Refuse; refuse single use plastic when and where you can.

One of the easiest ways to reduce our consumption of single use plastic is to prioritize buying items not in plastic. While this might be less convenient, if you start with individual changes, you can build upon this over time. For example, purchase your veggies at a farmers market for less packaging, bring your own veggie bags instead of using plastic ones from the grocery store, prioritize items packaged in glass and aluminum instead of plastic. 

It’s not possible to get away from plastic completely, but if we are thoughtful about our purchases, we can reduce how much plastic we are using and we can use our $$ to encourage companies to have more sustainable business practices.

Tied to this, if you must buy items in plastic packaging, prioritize items that use recycled plastic or are re-fillable. A recent article from Vox highlights some of the packaging changes that SC Johnson has made to reduce single use plastic packaging for products like Windex and talks about some of the same issues we discuss here [4]. However, for full transparency, Vox received money from SC Johnson for publishing this article while we did not. And while it’s nice to hear about how a major corporation is making changes to use post consumer recycled materials in their packaging, we need to see this become the norm.

Until this does become the norm, the burden is on us, the consumers, to reduce our own dependence on single use plastic, to tell companies what we want, and support the shift in packaging that is so desperately needed.

References:

[1] The New Plastics Economy; Rethinking the future of plastics. World Economic Forum, January 2016. https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf

[2] Smith, M., Love, D. C., Rochman, C. M., & Neff, R. A. (2018). Microplastics in seafood and the implications for human health. Current environmental health reports, 5, 375-386. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6132564/

[3] Future of Reusable Consumption Models; Platform for Shaping the Future of Consumption. World Economic Forum, July 2021. https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_IR_Future_of_Reusable_Consumption_2021.pdf

[4] How to give single-use plastics a second life. Vox Creative, July 26th, 2023. https://www.vox.com/ad/23725698/rethinking-single-use-plastics