Plastic is everywhere. And no wonder – it’s versatile, durable and inexpensive.
Unfortunately, little thought has historically been given as to what happens to plastic once it’s no longer in use, and as a result, we are now faced with the global crisis of plastic waste piling up on land and in our oceans.
Recycling isn’t making much of a dent in the problem. Globally, only 2% of plastic gets recycled, with the rest being disposed of in landfills and waste facilities, or worse yet, released directly into the environment.
We’re doing a bit better in Canada – nationally, about 12% of plastic used each year is collected for recycling, and most provinces are making headway through Extended Producer Responsibility programs, which compel manufacturers to deal with products at the end of their useful life. Nevertheless, three million tonnes of plastic are still thrown out each year in Canada, representing $8 billion in lost economic value, energy and resources.
This is both a huge challenge and an opportunity for innovation.
WE’RE JUST NOT GETTING THE MOST FROM OUR PLASTICS
Earlier this year, the Smart Prosperity Institute, a national research network and policy think tank based at the University of Ottawa released its report, A Vision for a Circular Economy for Plastics in Canada, which characterizes the plastic waste crisis as a by-product of the dominant model of global capital, the Linear Economy:
[The] current take-make-waste approach to plastics is bad for the planet, and a lost opportunity for economic growth. The loss of 88% of the plastic used in the Canadian economy results in squandered non-renewable fossil resources, increased greenhouse gases and the discharge of plastics to land and marine environments. The waste and pollution associated with plastics not only results in environmental impact but also represents a deadweight loss to the Canadian economy.
Raw materials are extracted, manufactured into plastics, used for a finite period of time, and then disposed of … At a value of between $100 and $150 billion annually, 95% of the material value of plastic packaging is lost to the global economy after only a single use.
WHAT A CIRCULAR ECONOMY FOR PLASTICS WOULD LOOK LIKE
The Circular Economy represents a fundamental shift in the way materials move through the economy – it aims to keep materials circulating in the economy as long as possible. The Circular Economy promises to transform how we produce, use, and consume goods, and plastics are a natural fit for this model, since the versatile material can be re-processed into new products multiple times.
So why isn’t plastic reused and recycled more often? Simply put, in a Linear Economy, it’s cheaper to produce new materials from petrochemicals than it is to recirculate the existing materials. And we all know what that looks like. But what would plastic in a Circular Economy look like? The Smart Prosperity Institute gives us this vision:
[A] plastics circular economy produces plastics from renewable sources, is powered by renewable energy, reuses and recycles plastics within the economy without leakage to the environment, and generates no waste or emissions.
A plastics circular economy would be a growth economy recirculating plastics in a manner that harnesses their extraordinary material properties but without waste.
Getting there would require greater cooperation between governments, businesses and consumers:
This evolution will involve building new commercial relationships, transforming existing relationships, redesigning products and packaging, reinventing products and packaging systems to be delivered as services, developing technologies, making investments and changing operations. It will also involve shifting consumer cultural norms to change patterns in the use, consumption and recovery of plastics.
Extended Producer Responsibility programs, disposal bans, and intergovernmental collaboration are among the key steps toward getting the plastic Circular Economy off the ground.
AVOIDING UNNECESSARY PLASTIC USE
Being part of the Circular Economy also means re-evaluating existing ways of doing business. In many cases there are opportunities to eliminate unnecessary plastic packaging, or to move from single-use to a reusable packaging model. Breaking away from business-as-usual takes creativity and courage, and it’s a challenge spurring innovations around the globe – some of which will be featured at this year’s Zero Waste Conference.
#ZWC19 FOCUS ON PLASTICS
A key theme of #ZWC19 is transforming the ways we think about and use plastics. Keynote speakers Arthur Huang and Tom Szaky have both made remarkable innovations toward making plastic recycling – and upcycling – more sustainable, efficient, and most importantly, more accessible.
They’ll be joined by other leading voices from the chemical, retail, recycling and academic sectors, to discuss and debate Canada’s path forward, and the changes needed to transform how we make, use and recycle plastics.
A circular economy will help us reduce plastic waste, use and reuse products for longer, improve recycling and recovery, shift to renewable energy, and restore our ecosystems. By embracing this new model, Canadians can build a thriving economy while also taking care of our planet for today and for future generations.
Whether you’re totally new to the concept or an industry veteran, the Zero Waste Conference in collaboration with the National Zero Waste Council strikes a balance between theory and action. The conference is your guide to the people, ideas and actions that are having the biggest impact.
2019 Zero Waste Conference:
Mobilizing for Success in the Circular Economy
October 30 – 31, 2019
Vancouver Convention Centre (999 Canada Place)