Plastics: A Surprising Lodestar for the Circular Economy

Look around you. Literally, take a moment and scan your surroundings. Whoever you are and wherever you are, I bet you are surrounded by items made of plastics. Additionally, I would venture to guess that you would not take kindly to suddenly losing access to them. Whether you are a firefighter at the station waiting for your next call, someone seeking treatment in a hospital, or just sitting at your desk at home, my speculation holds true. For better or worse, plastics are globally ubiquitous and extremely useful. They are light, flexible, and easy to produce. And despite all the reasons to be concerned about them—and there are many—the idea that we can suddenly flip a switch and “ban plastics” is ill-conceived.

The Plastic Problem 

Let’s take a close look at the issue.

There is little debate that the manufacture and disposal of plastics has historically caused harm to people and the planet. To start with, they are made from petroleum products, which need to be drilled for, pumped, fracked, or otherwise extracted from the earth. These activities have their share of negative impact on people and places. Once they are formulated into usable products, most are used only once and then thrown away (ergo the term “single use plastics”). “But we recycle!” exclaim those good souls who are trying their best to be responsible citizens. Yes, traditional recycling is important, but it is far from enough, plagued as it is by a variety of constraints. 

Mechanical recycling is the dominant method of plastic recycling globally. The process consists of collecting, sorting, washing, grinding, melting, and pelletizing plastic, which can then be used to make new materials. In the U.S., the recycling rate fell from 8.7% in 2018 to 5-6% in 2021, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, with the rest either ending up in landfills, being burned in incinerators, or polluting lands and waterways. Keep in mind that most plastics are not biodegradable—they don’t rot and disintegrate, like paper or food does, but instead persist for extended periods of time in those waters(1) and landfills. In addition, the export markets have nearly shut down since China, where 70% of our used plastic used to go, passed tighter regulations restricting imports of waste materials (see the National Sword Policy)(2). With respect to the small portion of plastics that end up in a recycling facility, only a limited amount of those can be used as feedstock for mechanical processes, mostly resins numbered #1 and #2 (Polyethylene Terephthalate and High-Density Polyethylene, respectively). And then, even those mechanically recyclable plastics degrade in the process (they are “downcycled”), such that the quality and color will only hold up for one or two rounds of recycle and reuse. Then what happens? Whether they have been reused and recycled a couple of times or not, they find themselves at the same “end of life” choices: landfills, incineration or, more commonly, as trash in streets, waterways, oceans, fish and even mammals. In a pilot study(3) published in 2021, scientists examined the bodily waste of infants and found an average of 36,000 nanograms of polyethylene terephthalate per gram of feces, 10 times the amount they found in adult feces. As well-intentioned as it is, the mechanical recycling of plastics has simply not been effective as a sole strategy to prevent waste, pollution, and harm.

The Linear Economy

This plastic story tracks a familiar modern plotline: the linear or consumption-based economy. We extract natural resources, produce/manufacture products from those resources, use those products for a brief time, and then dispose of them. Even though fortunes have been made from this “disposable” view of all things, our communal attitude was not always like this. “Planned obsolescence” was not always an accepted business strategy. Not too long ago, in contrast, companies made names for themselves by touting durability, quality, and the craftsmanship. Some of you may remember the Maytag commercials, in which the repair man bemoaned his loneliness because Maytag machines were built to last so long and to work so well. “You are just too rugged” he would exclaim in despair. In recent times, we are more likely to be thinking about the next model of smartphone before we have even disposed of all that packaging the current one came in. 

In all fairness, there are societal trends in a different direction, mostly enabled by the internet as a rapid, cheap, and easy mechanism for sharing large amounts of information with large numbers of people.  Arguably, we are experiencing a renaissance of appreciation for durability, sharing and reuse. Examples include platforms for car and bike-sharing like Zipcar and Lime, home sharing networks like Airbnb, clothes sharing systems like Rent the Runway, and even job and workstation sharing. There are huge online marketplaces connecting individuals to buy and sell used products, such as Craigslist and Offer Up. Goodwill Industries, which takes donations of gently used items and resells them, has seen such an increase in donations in recent times that it is running out of space and people to properly handle it.  The success of these sharing and reuse systems evidences a gradual slowing of the acquisition and consumption mania of the last few decades. We are realizing that we don’t need to own everything, buy it new, and own it all by ourselves.  We can share, we can rotate, we can donate. We can take joy in things that are “new to us.” There is a certain integrity and virtue to this (re)developing view of things. There is also tremendous efficiency added to the system because value is being derived from underused/excess capacity. Houses, cars, even office workstations which previously sat unused are turned into value for the owner and the temporary/new user. So, at least in some places and for some people, behaviors are changing. This trend, should it endure, is certainly a step in the right direction. 

But the fact remains that the linear economy has already brought us to a point of crisis. Constant taking of natural resources without fostering regeneration has depleted or destroyed one side of the equation. Immense volumes of waste are overwhelming the other side of the equation. It is a system out of balance and short-sighted, and it is failing.

The Circular Economy

The circular systems of nature present the starkest contrast to the linear economy we have created. The water cycle is a perfect example. 

This resource is available for use by people, animals, vegetation-all who need it. If left to function properly, the water evaporates, precipitates, runs through streams, is filtered by earth, and returns to the ocean ready to evaporate again. All along that cycle, it serves a variety of purposes, but there are systems in place to ensure constant cleaning and replenishment. The resource is not diminished through use. Human intervention has caused some grave damage to these and other natural systems, but the point is the elegance and durability of the natural structures. To avoid scarcity of resources on the one hand (and the resulting health, equity, violence, and other impacts) and to face our ever-growing waste management problem on the other, we must re-imagine our economic systems. We must move in a direction that reduces waste and allows natural systems to regenerate and replenish themselves: we need to live in circular, self-sustaining systems, just like those of nature.

How do we get there? Better education about our needs and impacts, of course, holds hope for long term and enduring cultural and behavioral change. But that is a long and slow course, which must be walked in parallel to other solutions. The urgency of the issue requires a more vigorous approach including policy, regulatory and market system alignment. We need to increase the “cost” of societally harmful behavior and to associate value with societally productive behavior. A perfect laboratory for this work is the emerging technology referred to as “advanced recycling”(4) of plastics, which allows our management of plastics to work like the ecosystem.

Advanced Recycling

This technology is in its early stages, with examples of failed efforts along the way, but it is evolving quickly. So let us look at it as a thought experiment, a potential lodestar to illuminate a path forward. Advanced plastic recycling operates at the molecular level. Instead of simply shredding the plastic into smaller pieces, the process breaks the carbon bonds in the plastic and allows for the materials to be turned back into the basic components from which they were made (primarily Benzene, Toluene, and Xylene, hence the moniker “BTX”). Those building blocks can then be turned into virgin plastic again. And this process can happen repeatedly without the degradation caused by mechanical processes.

A well-functioning advanced recycling system would 1: eliminate what would otherwise have been considered an undesirable waste product, and which would have incurred costs for collection, transport, and disposal or, alternatively, would have become a visual and environmental pollutant; 2: create a valuable output from the transformation of that waste, which would incentivize desired harvesting and recycling behavior; 3: allow for the continued critical uses of plastics while R&D explores alternatives for certain uses; 4: eliminate the need for drilling and other extraction practices as a necessity for enjoying the benefits of plastics; and, 5: last but not least, create a time buffer to ensure that these transitions that are made away from certain plastic uses are done equitably and without undue burden on those who can afford it the least.

The equity issues associated with the harms of historical plastic-related practices and the importance of proceeding thoughtfully forward are beyond the scope of this article, but they cannot be beyond the consideration of those exploring policies around it.

So, maybe the most significant problem with plastics has not been the plastics themselves, but the way in which we have historically made and disposed of them. And maybe the unique benefits of plastic, for critical uses that can’t easily or quickly be replaced, can continue to be enjoyed while minimizing or eliminating the negative impacts to our wellbeing. And maybe this is one more example to debunk the popular and persistent myth that doing well by the environment means hurting the economy, the persistence of which usually belies either a lack of imagination or a vested interest. 

As this lodestar example demonstrates, a new industry such as this leads to the creation of a multitude of jobs. Not only are there jobs related to the actual processing and remanufacturing of the materials, but there are also those associated with the trades that return to existence as we move away from the “single use” mindset. We may start to see repair shops again, for example, and all those people who are involved in the reuse and sharing economy. New businesses and business models can flourish, as we have already begun to observe. A recent report by the Closed Loop Fund highlights a potential economic opportunity of up to $120 billion in North America when new advanced technologies are utilized to make a versatile mix of new end products, chemicals, and plastics.(5) 

Yes: in our example, the petroleum extraction folks would lose business unless they too adapt to the times. But, again, I return to the example of nature. In natural ecosystems, it is not the strongest who survive but the most resilient. It is those who recognize the imperative to change as conditions change and can accommodate, even find ways to thrive, in that evolving context. This is how it is with people and industries, both of which need to adapt to survive and, more importantly, to not be an impediment to the health or wellbeing of others simply because they cannot fathom change. And here is also an example of a worthy role for government action, to create the policies and support systems to help support necessary and beneficial change without undue economic harm to anyone. As a society, we can find ways to support people and industries with retooling when it helps our entire economy grow stronger and healthier.

Transition to a Circular Economy 

So, the next step is to create frameworks that encourage and enable our necessary transition to the circular economy. How about, instead of attempting to “ban plastics” without regard to the impacts or wisdom of such measures, we tax single-use plastics and then apply those revenues as tax breaks to support industries that use circular content? That would create a virtuous cycle. How about creating a fast-track regulatory review and permitting for those testing innovative solutions to our common social problems, so that the learning, failing, and recreation cycle can accelerate? How about insisting that governmental purchasing policies require the use of circular content? How about removing government support systems for the extraction of petroleum and instead redirecting them to grants and subsidies for innovations to extract the 269,000 tons of plastics that are floating in the oceans? Even if we can’t recover all that plastic floating in the waters, how about setting up systems to prevent the 10 thousand metric tons of plastic waste entering the Great Lakes or the 8 million metric tons of plastic that are still going into the ocean every year by creating economic value out of it?

In the 19th Century, the human use of water, especially in urban areas, began to overwhelm the ability of our natural systems to absorb, filter and process those waters at the rate in which humans needed the system to function. We did not attempt to ban water. Instead, we created the water and sewer infrastructure. We used technology to compensate and support the function of natural systems. Today, our plastic waste is overwhelming the system and petrochemical extraction is causing harm, but we can implement solutions that can help support human use while maintaining human and environmental health. 

The tremendous change and negativity that surrounds us can feel defeating at times, but it is precisely what makes audacious visions and goals necessary. We must transform some of the basic systems and patterns with which we are comfortable and embark on a path that leads us where we actually want to go. It is daunting but possible, and the possibilities are terribly exciting. So, let’s be a little more imaginative in our visions for the future, a little more clever, and a little more nuanced in aligning policies and regulatory systems with that vision. And a lot more audacious. Advanced recycling is only the beginning. 

Images utilized in this article are provided by Encina and are used here with permission. 

About the Author: 

Sheida R. Sahandy is an advocate for focusing innovation on complex public problems. Sheida Sahandy is the Chief Sustainability Officer for Encina, with extensive regulatory, legislative and governance experience at the federal, state and regional levels advancing environmental and social goals. Follow her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sheida-r-sahandy-9444887/ 

About Encina: 

Encina Development Group produces circular chemicals. Encina’s products provide the basic building blocks for customers to meet their renewable content goals and enable the cyclical production and reproduction of products across a broad spectrum of ubiquitous goods, including consumer products and packaging, pharmaceuticals, construction, and much more. For more information, please visit: www.encina.com. 

References: 

(1) Persistence of Plastic Litter in the Oceans | SpringerLink

(2) Piling Up: How China’s Ban on Importing Waste Has Stalled Global Recycling – Yale E360

(3) Pilot Study: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.estlett.1c00559  

(4) Advanced Recycling is also referred to in the industry as Chemical Recycling and Molecular Recycling interchangeably.

(5) Closed Loop Partners, Accelerating Circular Supply Chains for Plastics, available at: https://www.closedlooppartners.com/research/advancing-circular-systems-for-plastics/.

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