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The circular economy crossroads
Source:    Author:By Domenic Donatantonio    Date:03.May.2019

On January 11, Innovate UK, part of the national funding agency investing in science and research, announced new investment for businesses to tackle the ocean plastics crisis. To tackle the problem, Innovate UK and Sky Ocean Ventures have joined forces to offer UK businesses £6 million in simultaneous public and private funding.

Innovate UK will provide up to £3 million in grants, and in its initial stage, has invited applications from projects that reduce plastic waste and the pollution of the wider environment and promote a circular economy. The deadline is 13 March.

Though growing in strength each year, the ‘circular economy’ concept is still at the fledgling stage, but the tide of public opinion can only force innovation and development.

According to the United Nations (UN), more than eight million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans each year, equal to dumping a garbage truck of plastic every minute. As much as 80 per cent of all litter in our oceans is made of plastic. 

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, just 14% of the plastic packaging used globally is collected for recycling after use, with 40% ending up in landfill and a third in fragile ecosystems.

However, the open secret in the plastics industry is that depending on the oil price, it is often cheaper to make virgin plastic while the market for recycled plastic is notoriously volatile, making investors reluctant to commit to the sector.

China has become a key driver in how plastics waste is tackled globally. The nation’s decision in 2017 to ban imports of 24 categories of solid waste, including certain types of plastics, paper and textiles, citing environmental and health concerns, has reverberated around the world, with recycling operations in other countries forced to readjust their focus.

Since it began reporting in 1992, China has imported 106 million tonnes of plastic waste, making up 45.1% of all cumulative imports according to UN figures.

High income countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas account for more than 85 per cent of all global plastic waste exports. Taken collectively, the European Union is the top exporter of plastic waste.

Another problem for China was the poor quality of waste imports, which made them more difficult to recycle and consequently hit profits.

The UN Environment Programme said earlier this month (January) that current processes to stop plastic pollution into oceans are not fit for purpose.

Not all plastic can be recycled and a lack of public awareness means plastic collections are often contaminated. This can increase the cost of recycling.

In the United States, the introduction of single-stream recycling - where recyclables are not separated in household collections - led to a huge surge in recycling rates, but as plastics became more complex, people started placing the wrong things in their bins. Waste Management, the largest processor of residential recycling in North America, says that one in every four items in recycling bins today is not recyclable.

The authors of UN Environment’s The State of Plastics report said: “Chemicals added to plastic polymers, products made of mixed materials and food packaging contaminated with food waste make recycling difficult and costly.”

In Britain, the government announced in December that the 5p fee for plastic carrier bags in England will be doubled to 10p, and extended to all shops, under plans set out by the Environment Secretary. The change is contained in a government consultation aimed at further reducing the plastic used by consumers and could come into effect in January 2020.

Since the 5p fee was introduced in 2015 for retailers with at least 250 employees, an estimated 15 billion bags have been taken out of circulation.

Meanwhile on the European continent, the European Commission unveiled a new strategy in January, saying that plans to make all plastic packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030 could create 200,000 jobs but only if recycling capacity was multiplied fourfold. The European Union recycles less than 30 per cent of its 25 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, and half of that used to be sent to China.

David Blanchard, Unilever chief R&D officer.As part of its strategy, the European Union will develop new rules on packaging to improve the recyclability of plastics and increase demand. It wants to see a more standardised system for the separate collection and sorting of waste.

Some of the industry’s top players have spotted the gaps. In October, waste management company Veolia and consumer goods giant Unilever said they would work together to invest in new technologies to increase recycling and move towards a circular economy.

The three-year partnership will focus, at first, on India and Indonesia where the firms will work to scale up waste collection and recycling infrastructure.

In 2017, Unilever made an industry leading commitment to ensure that all its plastic packaging will be designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. To help create an end market for this material, the company also committed to increase the recycled plastic content in its packaging to at least 25% in the same timeframe.

Unilever chief R&D officer David Blanchard, said: “We know that consumers want to buy sustainably. Our own research shows that one-third of consumers are now buying brands based on their social and environmental impact and over 50% are more likely to buy products that are sustainably produced. It’s up to us to make the sustainable choice the easy choice.”

In 2010, as part of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, the firm set the target to halve the waste associated with its products by 2020 and to reduce its weight of packaging by one-third.

The company has claimed that by ‘light-weighting’ its packaging, it has recorded a 15% decrease since 2010 and also introduced new refill packaging. ?

One initiative was to use MuCell? moulding technology to reduce the plastic component in its Dove Body Wash bottles by up to 15%, with Unilever waiving exclusivity so that other manufacturers can use the technology.

Unilever has also partnered with start-up company Ioniqa and PET resin producer Indorama Ventures to pioneer a new technology, which converts PET waste back into virgin grade material for use in food packaging.

The firm is also trialling a new technology called CreaSolv to recycle plastic sachets which commonly end up in landfill, waterways or the ocean.

In Indonesia, Unilever has helped communities to develop over 2600 Community Waste Banks in 18 cities where they can collect inorganic waste and sell it based on its value, ultimately reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill.

Blanchard added: “We’re proud to be taking a leadership position when it comes to tackling our packaging waste but we can’t do this alone. This requires action from the whole industry. That’s why we’re working with organisations like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, governments and other stakeholders to create the right enabling environment for a shift towards more effective collection schemes and recycling infrastructure.”

Circulate Capital, an investment management firm dedicated to preventing ocean plastic, said in October that it expected US $90 million in funding from some of the world’s leading consumer good groups and chemical companies, including PepsiCo, P&G, Dow and Coca-Cola.

The founder and CEO of Circulate Capital Rob Kaplan, said: “We have recognized that financing is a key barrier, as people always want to know ‘who is going to pay for it?’”

By removing capital for infrastructure and operators as a barrier, we believe we can accelerate solutions to policy, education, supply chains and more.”

In Europe, a European consortium of around 100 companies and associations representing the entire value chain of flexible packaging is driving innovation.

Despite its European focus, CEFLEX believes that Asia can hold the key to build on the successes and learn from the failures of circular economy projects.

CEFLEX recently celebrated its 100th member - the RPC bpi group. Interest is also coming from outside Europe with India (Polyplex, Sumilon) and Thailand (The Siam Cement Public Company Limited (SCG) all now participating.

Dana Mosora, speaking on behalf of CEFLEX, said: “We’re working with companies for a strong collaboration in the value chain. Europe is the continent with the most advanced collection of packaging.

But in some countries, maybe it is collected but not necessarily sorted so you can’t get the value. The mechanics of recycling can be further developed. It is a young industry far from maturity.”

Mosora also welcomed the efforts from Unilever in the Asian region.

With their investment in Indonesia, the lesson they are giving us that ‘we have developed it, and the technology is valid’”.

Mosora said that attitudes have changed to the circular economy in the last three or four years producing a sounder base to drive innovation.

Back then, there was a lot of doubt that it could be a business model or strategy. I’d be interested to see how China could embrace the circular economy.

We can all gain from this. Asia is catching up but can also innovate too.”

Mosora sees Asia holding the key potential to improve upon European processes.

Asia can learn and set up an equivalent system and learn from Europe’s errors,” she said.

And therein lies the message for the Asian continent. The decision by China to draw a thick red line barring any further intake of waste to the nation can only be a driver for change in making the circular economy not just a viable alternative, but the only necessary one.     

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