Plastics, Circular Economy and Climate Change: how they relate
by Nika Salvetti

Decarbonising without transforming the ways we produce and consume will not address the root causes of sustainability challenges.

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November 15 2023
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Plastics is considered one of the best inventions of the 20th century, due to its beneficial properties and versatility. Because of its additional benefit as a low-cost material, the annual worldwide demand for plastics reached 353 million tonnes (MT) in 2019. This has been translated into an increase in global plastic waste with OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) projections for 2060, to increase to 1,014 MT. The main sources of total plastic waste come from packaging (40%), consumer products (12%) and textiles (11%). Of this, macro plastics are the largest debris, but micro and nano plastics from several industrial sources are becoming a growing environmental and health concern. 

Today, less than 9 per cent of plastic waste is recycled, 19 per cent incinerated and 50 per cent disposed of in landfills. The remaining 22 per cent leaks uncontrollably into the environment. In total, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that more than 8 MT reaches the oceans as marine debris. 

Plastic waste is becoming an alarming phenomenon that closely relates to climate change. In fact, if not tackled comprehensively along the supply chain, it will undermine decarbonisation strategies, especially in low-income countries. 

Looking at the supply chain, currently, more than 90 per cent of plastics are produced from virgin fossil fuel feedstocks, which account for more than 10 per cent of global oil demand (PRI, 2021). This corresponds to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions from approx. 0.8 billion metric tonnes to almost 2.5 billion in 2040, corresponding to 3.4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Consequently, the World Wildlife Fund and UNEP stress that the augmented world consumption of plastics adds high levels of production-related carbon footprint in the processing phase, and the increasing high volume of post-consumption waste further contributes to air, water, and soil pollution, harming wildlife, ecosystems, and human health. 

The most common treatment of plastic waste is to be discarded in landfills and destroyed thermally or incinerated. The impacts of this practice on the environment and health depend on the technology that controls emissions as well as the advanced design of the incinerators. Conventional ways of incineration emit greenhouse gases, especially CO2, and the chemical additives to the plastics, contribute to the additional generation of environmental and human hazards. 

According to UNEP and OECD, the economic costs associated with plastic waste, in relation to the externalities generated by post-consumption of plastic packaging and the emissions of greenhouse gases of its production are estimated to around 40$ billion annually. In general, this trend is supported by improper waste management practices, irresponsible behaviours of producers and consumers, and weak regulatory frameworks that lead to the increasing accumulation of untreated plastic waste. To these causes, recent market failures are accelerating the plastic pollution crisis; mainly the competitiveness of virgin fossil fuel feedstocks’ prices compared to recycled materials, lack of political commitment to global solutions, and financial investors’ disinterest due to low return on investment in recycling products. Therefore, addressing plastic waste will help address climate change. 

According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, the transition to renewable energy and the enhancement of energy efficiency measures would be able to address only 55 per cent of emissions by 2030. The remaining emissions can only be reduced if we rethink and redesign the way we produce and consume, shifting from a linear model of take-make-waste to a more circular approach to minimise the pressure on our natural resources. It is estimated that our take-make-waste economy consumes 100 billion tonnes of materials a year and wastes over 90 per cent. Moreover, 70 per cent of all global GHG is related to material processing and use. Thus, decarbonising without transforming the ways we produce and consume will be just another short-term solution that will not necessarily address the root causes of sustainability challenges. Implementing the circular economy’s principles could help in mitigating the extremely negative impacts of Climate Change by rethinking the way we use materials; and by finding ways to minimise waste and shifting consumption and production patterns towards an economy that can retain the value of materials and extend their life use and reuse so that it enables to elimination of wasteful resources. 

In particular, the circular economy of plastic is an alternative business approach to address plastic pollution and climate change as it aims at finding technological solutions to a better technical and environmental use of materials and resources. This means using renewable energy source feedstocks; creating an eco-friendly design to ease the recyclability of all product components; limiting the type of polymers that are less apt to be recycled, and the chemical additives that undermine recycling processes; and facilitating the recycling processes by improving waste management systems and improving the conversion of plastic waste into new resources and materials. 

Nika Salvetti (Ph.D) is the Co-Founder of ReThink Plastic Vietnam and Visiting Professor at Heriot-Watt University in Dubai.  ReThink Plastic Vietnam is a community-led initiative that raises awareness and finds concrete circular solutions to address plastic waste in Vietnam. Additionally, she teaches Circular Economy at Heriot-Watt University.