Since the 1950s, the increase in mass production of plastics has led to 8.3 billion tons of plastic waste. Unfortunately, 12% of this waste has been incinerated and only 9% successfully recycled with the rest buried in landfills all over the world. As plastic takes hundreds of years to degrade, most of it still exists in some form. What if we could recapture those legacy resources and use them to create new products, saving us from extracting raw fossil fuels in the future? While large scale urban mining may be a way off, we can capture the plastic waste we produce now and turn it back into treasure.
Some scientists have called for a global treaty to end production of “virgin” plastic by 2040. Such an agreement would turbocharge the development of full circularity in the plastic chain, where everything is reused and nothing wasted and plastic material stays in a perpetual loop. Improved waste management, an optimized recycling system and clever product design can make recycling rates of 100% possible if all the moving parts work in unison.
To adopt a fully integrated waste-to-product mindset, we need to communicate the value proposition to plastic manufacturers. There are clear financial benefits to this strategy as well as sustainability advantages. Using recycled content is not only about preventing waste; it also reduces CO2 emissions and energy use, allowing companies to meet ambitious corporate social responsibility (CSR) objectives and pre-empt government legislation on extended producer responsibility (EPR) and recycled content mandates. In addition, it lessens dependence on importing raw materials, shortening supply chains and reducing costs. Losing our virginity is a goal we must race towards.
In a circular utopia, all plastics would be recycled back into the same products in a never-ending loop. Nothing would leak into the environment, nothing would downgrade and nothing would be made from fossil fuels ever again. However, even state-of-the-art facilities have systemic and technological limitations preventing them from attaining higher recycling rates. Technically, all plastics could be converted back into fuel through advanced chemical recycling methods, such as pyrolysis, but these are incredibly investment and energy-intensive and not feasible for small communities.