Could you imagine a world without plastic?
Not really, since plastic has become an item of everyday usage in our lives. However, let’s remind that before 1907, humanity has survived without it.
Today, the rate at which we use plastic products is astonishing. A massive amount of plastic production is taking place to meet the growing demand based on our consumption. The situation is further fueled because we dispose of single-use plastic after using it for a few minutes.
Using it to store food to deliver products or even as utensils, plastic plays a vital function in our modern economy and lifestyle. Similarly, there’s no denying that plastic is immensely versatile in application, convenient to use, and extremely cheap. However, the increasing production of plastic poses a serious threat to nature and us. In most cases, we cannot control what is staying in the system and leaking into the environment.
Plastics and the over-flowing landfills
About 95% of plastic packaging material, equivalent to USD 80-120 billion, is discarded annually after one-time short use. Clearly, that shows a one-way road to environmental disaster.
It has been 40 years since the recycling symbol’s launch to control plastic waste. However, globally, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. Adding up to the value losses for sorting and reprocessing, only 5% of material value is retained for subsequent use.
Plastic packaging is principally for single use. Millions of plastic waste tonnes, worth billions of dollars, end up in landfills, are burned, or leaked into the environment.
A staggering 8 million tonnes of plastic leak into the ocean every year — and as we talk about it, the number continues to rise. There is so much focus on plastic within our oceans. Did you know that there is up to 4 to 23 times as much plastic in our soil as there is in our oceans?
If you lined all the plastic bottles made in one year, they reach halfway to the sun. Remember, every single one of those bottles, and less incinerated, still exists on our planet today.
It is high time we rework our relationship with plastic
As evident from the figures indicating our reckless relationship with “plastic disposal,” it is high time we rethink our strategies with the plastic system. However, the question arises: Is it possible to revise the manufacturing, designing, and usage of plastics? Is there another way to produce plastic besides burning fossil fuels?
Out of the 78 million tonnes of plastic packaging produced each year, only 2% of it makes it back to the recycling system – whereas 40% of it goes straight to the landfill.
The larger proportion of plastics is mostly made from burning fossil fuels. The incineration process further fuels the deteriorating environmental health, as if a billion tonnes of disposal in landfills were not already an ecological crisis. To meet our climate goals, we need to break away from using energy derived from fossil fuels’ burning.
As we have seen in this circular economy series, it is not just about the material; it is a systems problem. The plastic packaging must be designed to fit within a system, whether reused, recycled, replaced, or compost. This calls for active communication between stakeholders, such as producers, packaging staff, the designers, and ultimately, the consumers.
Contrary to the common belief, we cannot recycle all plastic products
The recycling rates of plastic have been incredibly slow. Today, merely 14% of plastic packaging is collected from recycling worldwide.
Moreover, another problematic aspect of the recycling solution is that most plastic packaging is not entirely made up of plastic – it is a mixture of different materials that are very hard to collect, rare, and unrecyclable. Though, it is pertinent to mention that about 30% of plastic packaging will never be reused or recycled without a fundamental redesign and innovative solution.
That means we cannot practically recycle all the plastic. The infrastructure plays an essential role in recyclability, and the current recycling system cannot keep up with growth in plastic usage.
Innovation is what we need
Necessity is the mother of invention, and as of now, we can safely reiterate that innovation is the other key to success as well. There has been a significant hike in private and governmental reuse-focused start-ups in the time that we are living in.
With the advent of fast-paced technology and research models emerging from every corner of the earth, we know that the opportunity exists. Since innovation is at the core of designing new systems, we have to reform our methods to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, replaced or compostable.
Globally, replacing just 20% of single-use plastic packaging products with reusable alternatives is roughly estimated to be an opportunity worth at least 10 billion US dollars.
From Agri waste and plant protein to designing products to preserve nature, there are extraordinary opportunities available to innovate. These include new economic models based on thriving versus unsustainable growth and decoupling from fossil fuel inputs.
As the sector is full of new challenges. Here are some examples of empowering our creativity, start innovating, and design better for the outset.
1. Algramõ 2.0 – Get rewarded for reusing containers
Algramo 2.0 app. is transforming their Algramo 1.0 in-store vending machines into smart-powered mobile electric tricycles that deliver directly to the users’ doorsteps.
Taking recycling to the next level, the users of this app buy reusable containers and create an online account where their credits are managed. They receive rewards for reusing packaging that can be recouped from dispensing machines.
Users can add their favorite brands to the system and adapt the technology to comply with new other stores and supermarkets. Benefits of using the Algramo app include customization, smart systems, and rewards.
2. Revolv – the Reusable Cups
It is a company offering smart reusable cups that customers can opt for when ordering food or beverages. The exciting part about Revolv products is that a deposit is placed on the cup, which is paid back upon return at a drop-off station or to any other participating café.
Revolv cups are designed for a better drinking experience, such as insulation, stability, and easy stacking. Moreover, it acts as a third-party supplier of software packaging and latent infrastructure to optimize operations
Incentives and discounts are given to users of Revolv, which increases engagement. The reusable system that spreads across the cities works with cafes and larger chains and relies on the service of picking up cups from drop-off points and managing redistribution.
3. Ooho – Promoting Biodegradable Packaging
Made from brown seaweed, which is a renewable natural resource, Ooho is edible and biodegradable packaging for beverages and condiments.
The design and concept with which Ooho was founded and continues to work have won numerous awards. The system and operating sphere of Ooho have been utilized for various events, and it has been continually working to help reduce the environmental impact produced by plastic bottles.
4. Lush – A shift from Liquid to Solid products
Liquid products require packaging – plastic or not. If factories switch to manufacturing solid products in place of liquid, it can do wonders for the overall environment.
Lush, founded in the UK in 1995, has over 850 stores now worldwide. It sells a breadth of self-care products in their naked form, meaning that previously required packaging to contain the products has now been eliminated.
The shift to a solid, naked form of product-selling provides many benefits, including the lowered cost of transportation, convenience to the consumer, increased e-commerce opportunities, making provision of large quantities easier, and allows usage of less packaging material per volume of product.
5. beterre- reducing and replace plastic one step at the time
We all care about plastic pollution, but we are also busy competing priorities while living a full life.
beterre is an early-stage startup, looking to solve this problem by offering a fun and rewarding path for users to reduce and replace plastic one step at a time. A solution committed to a sustainable and plastic-free lifestyle.
The concept includes a mobile app to provide accurate and easy-to-implement advice. It will encourage daily fun, and rewarding challenges to help users enjoy the journey of reducing and replacing plastic.
We live in an era where innovation is critical – not only to our businesses’ success but also for sustaining the climate and ensuring the environmental health doesn’t further degenerate.
Rethinking the plastic industry as a whole requires introducing innovative solutions to the supply chain up to the end-users aimed at reforming the system at critical set-points to achieve a sustainable model. This brings us to the idea of eliminating waste by design, such that we are not recycling the waste products but are revising our tactics at the upper parts of the ladder.
Since many companies are working successfully to generate solutions that involve maximum favorable aspects. This may help as inspiration to rethink the whole plastic packaging system. We have to strive to eliminate unnecessary plastic packaging, moving from single-use to reuse or replace where relevant, and ensuring all packaging left is recyclable or reusable.
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Previous articles of the circular economy series:
- What Is Circular Economy and Why Should You Adopt It?
- Innovation’s Time is Now – Circular Economy Is Paving the Way
- Why should we use Systems Thinking to identify the root causes of problems and new opportunities
- Food and circular economy, three initiatives paving the way towards a sustainable system
Sources and Further Reading