Circular Economy for Plastics: Learning from mother nature

by Anshika Singh – Plastic is a magic material that has become the biggest tragedy of mankind.  The word “Plastic” stands for “something which is easily pliable and easily shaped.” It is a synthetic polymer first invented in the year 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt. Sir John created this magic material to take part in a contest initiated by a New York firm to create a substitute for ivory1. Soon, this product became the material of choice for everyone. Today, we enjoy a comfortable life because of the technological advancements from plastics in mobile phones, laptops, insulation, heat and water-resistant surfaces, medical materials, and even space exploration. However, indiscriminate and unregulated production and single-use plastics have created a huge problem for the whole planet. These plastics eventually end up in our oceans, affecting around 700 marine species2. Smaller plastic pieces (so-called microplastics) have further added to this problem due to their tiny size, large surface area and high absorbance capacity. Microplastics can act as a vector for deadly pathogens and toxins3. Their small size also increases their biological accessibility to life on this planet, who ingest the particles.

It is time to learn from mother nature and find a sustainable and economical solution for plastic waste. Nature is the best teacher. It teaches us the basic concept of a circular economy, explaining how to use raw material effectively and circulate the by-products back into the process via a feedback loop. The best example from nature is our food web. Each tropic level has its important role and interdependency on other levels, which keeps the whole ecosystem in sync.  A circular economy is a restorative and regenerative process in which material flows in a closed-loop. The by-products and main products are reused and recycled, thus allowing “no waste generation” at the end of the process. The circular economy depends on the following four pillars 1) Refuse 2) Reform 3) Reduce and 4) Recycle4. Unfortunately, each of these steps has some challenges which can only be tackled by innovative solutions.

  1. Refuse: It has been challenging to refuse the use of plastics even if alternatives are a bit costly. A major hurdle in refusing the use of plastics is lack of alternatives that are economical and user-friendly. For instance, there are some biodegradable plastics that can solve waste management issues faced by catering, food packaging and agricultural sectors. These biodegradable plastics can be easily composted aerobically or anaerobically and methane gas can be captured for energy use. However, there are a few challenges in the use of biodegradable plastics such as  1) proper education and training are needed at an end-user level to make sure that the material is decomposed as per protocols and methane capture is achieved properly to avoid global warming, 2) expensive raw materials (as compared to plastics) and their restricted availability, 3) production of microplastics – at present, no biodegradable plastic is 100% degradable5.
  2. Reform:  It is important to come up with innovations that can enhance the strength and durability of alternative non-plastic substitutes. New research has to be focussed on making mechanical, chemical and biological reformation of plastics more sustainable and economical5.
  3. Reduce: The most important aspect of the circular economy is to reduce the use of single-use plastics as well as reduce the overall demand for plastic products. It is necessary to have strict policies on the production of virgin plastics. Post-consumer recycled (PCR) should be promoted and awareness regarding its safe usages should be spread widely6.
  4. Recycle: At present, only 10% of total plastics generated are being recycled. One of the biggest hurdles is low market demand for recycled plastics that disrupts the proper functioning of the circular economy for plastics and microplastics waste management. Raw feedstock for most plastics are fossil fuels that are currently cheaper to use than recycled material. Recycling needs a high level of innovation so that the whole process becomes cost effective and profitable. Since post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastics raise safety concerns for end users, it is advised to embed recyclability principles (such as reducing the use of colourants, labels, adhesives, harmful toxins, and other chemicals) into the design processes to enhance appearance and durability.  Plastics should not be treated as waste any more. They should be seen as a valuable raw material for generating other valuable products such as fuel or energy. Such innovations should be encouraged and funded at large scale so that the whole process of plastic production becomes self-sustainable, economical and eco-friendly, thus achieving a truly circular economy6.
A schematic representation of the circular economy for plastic and microplastic waste management

References:

  1. Morris, Peter J. Polymer pioneers: a popular history of the science and technology of large molecules. No. 5. Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2005.
  2. Wilcox, C., Mallos, N. J., Leonard, G. H., Rodriguez, A., & Hardesty, B. D. (2016). Using expert elicitation to estimate the impacts of plastic pollution on marine wildlife. Marine Policy65, 107-114.
  3. Kirstein, I. V., Kirmizi, S., Wichels, A., Garin-Fernandez, A., Erler, R., Löder, M., & Gerdts, G. (2016). Dangerous hitchhikers? Evidence for potentially pathogenic Vibrio spp. on microplastic particles. Marine environmental research120, 1-8.
  4. Korhonen, J., Honkasalo, A., & Seppälä, J. (2018). Circular economy: the concept and its limitations. Ecological economics143, 37-46.
  5. Crippa, M., De Wilde, B., Koopmans, R., Leyssens, J., Muncke, J., Ritschkoff, A. C.,& Wagner, M. (2019). A circular economy for plastics: Insights from research and innovation to inform policy and funding decisions.
  6. Wagner, S., & Schlummer, M. (2020). Legacy additives in a circular economy of plastics: Current dilemma, policy analysis, and emerging countermeasures. Resources, Conservation and Recycling158, 104800.

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