Towards a circular economy: learning from plastics recycling mistakes and consolidating our successes

Recycling pioneers

Recycling pioneers and influential thinkers, including MBA Polymers founder Mike Biddle, speak to Recycling International about the world’s major recycling challenges, highlighting the key recycling successes and failures we can learn from to help propel the world towards a circular economy.

Explosive population growth coupled with a marked increase in affluence among developing nations, notably China, are driving ever higher commodity prices, explains Mike Biddle, MBA Polymers founder, as the demand for ‘stuff’ and ‘stuff to make our stuff’ continues to rocket, depleting our natural resources at the rate of knots. The ‘circular economy’ is the only option to meet this demand sustainably without causing further damage to people and planet, Biddle says.

In fact, Professor Michael Braungart, author of the best-selling ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things’, says we should stop talking about ‘minimising the damage’ we’ve caused to date and move to a more positive mindset where we perceive all waste as ‘nutrients’ to create new products. After all, he says, to quote Albert Einstein, ‘No problem can be solved by the same type of thinking that caused the problem’.

So what can we learn from the recycling highs and lows of the past 15 years?

Technology is driving major advances

Biddle explains that from his perspective, the single most important development has been the huge technological advances in recycling processes, such as automated sorting. This has both increased recycling rates and raised the quality of recycled materials.

Legislation catalyses competition

Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment says legislation has been a driving force in catalysing competition to recycle waste and waste reduction in Europe. This creates economies of scale and makes recycling a more economically viable option, Biddle explains.

The recycling sector now accounts for 50,000 facilities and 1.5m jobs in Europe. Meanwhile, thanks to the introduction of binding legal obligations and targets across the European Union (EU), some 35% of municipal waste was recycled in Europe in 2010, with municipal recycling rates increasing from 19% in 1998 to 40% in 2011, while 40% of Europe’s waste is now covered by a target.

That said, there’s still a huge amount of work to be done to reach the EU’s key target of recycling 50% of household waste in Europe by 2020.

Although some countries are blazing a trail in recycling, including Belgium, Denmark, Austria, Sweden, The Netherlands and Germany (although Braungart suggests that Germany is in fact a big advocate of incineration), many EU member states are lagging behind, quite dramatically in some cases, with nine states still land-filling more than 75% of their waste. The European Commission (EC) has plans in place to help ten ‘problem states’ improve, explains Potočnik, and embrace the economical benefits of recycling. The EU Waste Framework Directive should be a powerful force in catalysing further progress across Europe.

Environmental and social risks of ‘blind exporting’

One of the major waste issues facing the world today is the export of waste and recyclables to other countries – in particular to developing nations – perpetuated by the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality, says Biddle. China has created a strong domestic recycling infrastructure to support its spiralling demand for material goods, creating a worldwide network of brokers constantly seeking scrap and waste streams to sell to Chinese processors.

However, if developed nations continue to export recyclables to countries such as China, this reduces domestic recycling and associated job opportunities, and lowers the availability of affordable recycled materials for domestic manufacturers. And of course, it’s not just an economical argument – ‘blind export’, Biddle highlights, spells a multitude of environmental problems, affecting local communities and eco-systems through unsafe burning in open pits or illegal dumping of waste in rivers, just for example. Meanwhile, by-products of unsafe recycling can find their way into global eco-systems, meaning we are not completely ‘exporting our problems’.

To prevent illegal waste shipments leaving Europe, Potočnik says we need much tighter controls at ports in all EU member states.

Changing attitudes to recycling

Europe is ahead of the US in terms of its stance on recycling, Biddle believes, quoting Churchill’s famous line ‘We can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all other possibilities’. At a global level, the younger generations are more switched on to environmental issues and concerned by how their products are made, while people generally are developing more of a ‘love hate’ relationship with plastic, realising that this ‘space age’ material that brought us innovations in product safety (such as helmets), light-weighting in vehicles and food preservation, is ultimately damaging our environment and polluting our oceans. Attitudes among legislators have evolved positively, Potočnik believes.

Cradle-to-cradle concept gains traction

Braungart’s ‘cradle-to-cradle’ concept, whereby all products are designed with end-of-life in mind and waste no longer exists, is rapidly gaining popularity around the world, among designers, business leaders and even celebrities, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brad Pitt among its many converts. With 15 million copies of his book sold worldwide, Braungart says he ‘feels like the industry has finally discovered that the world isn’t flat’. At a consumer level, people are more interested in how a product can enhance their lifestyle than in pure ‘ownership’.

Textiles manufacturer Desso has gone completely ‘cradle-to-cradle, Braungart explains, while increasing its market share from 16% to 24% in the process, highlighting the commercial benefits of adopting this philosophy. Meanwhile, Unilever has reduced the impact of its ice-cream packaging by developing a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ solution that allows its packaging to degrade two hours after exiting the freezer.

Looking ahead to the future

Mike Biddle anticipates greater consolidation in the recycling sector, leading to three key benefits: higher quality recycled plastics, more consistent quality and performance of recycled plastics, and better technology. As for MBA Polymer’s role in this, Biddle wants the company to help close the loop on key waste streams, including electronics, packaging waste and end-of-life vehicles.

Importantly, Potočnik concludes, Europe is in a position to lead the world in recycling best practice and help developing nations to learn from our past mistakes, escaping the unsustainable Western pattern of consumption and production that has brought us to our present resource depletion crisis.

To end on a positive, note, Braungart believes his cradle-to-cradle concept is flexible enough to be applied to all sorts of businesses and organisations, presenting real opportunities to eliminate waste and design a host of innovative products for the future.

For more on closing the loop on plastics waste, listen to one of Mike Biddle’s inspiring speeches by visiting our video library.