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Plastics in a circular economy

If humanity does not switch its plastic economy into a circular one, 20 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will come from plastics by 2050. The European Environment Agency (EEA) reports that global plastic waste could grow from 6.3 billion to 25 billion tonnes by 2050.

We have all seen swimming plastic-waste hills in the ocean, but there are many other ways through which plastic pollutes our environment and the impacts go much further: from the widespread use of fossil fuels in the production to toxic leakage and waste incineration that pumps out greenhouse gases.

“Many people focus on plastics as a waste issue, but if you look at the whole production, use and then end of the lifecycle of plastics, it is clear we have environmental and climate impacts throughout the lifecycle,” said Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director of EEA, during an online conference held by Brussels-based think tank Friends of Europe. “COVID-19 is making things worse: the pandemic has led to an enormous amount of single-use plastic being used in protective equipment and by lowering oil prices, it’s undermined the recycling market.”

From a financial point of view, Sander Defruyt, Lead for the New Plastics Economy Initiative at UK-registered charity Ellen MacArthur Foundation explained that the problem is that collecting, sorting, recycling plastics is more expensive than producing virgin plastics and globally that’s an economic gap of 30 billion US dollars annually.

“Upstream solutions have to go beyond recycling and rethink the way products and goods are delivered and reduce the need for single-use products,” he added.

It is obvious that the plastic issue needs a global solution: China and the rest of Asia have overtaken Europe and North America as the biggest plastic producers. The world is calling out for a global agreement to promote sustainable plastics and only a common, world-wide cooperation could really act as a final and effective solution.

The experts of the field see a solution in calling for a chemical strategy, because everything starts from molecules, raising public awareness to change the consumer model and finally, to switch the industry’s focus from recycling and packaging to the rethink of the design of products and business models: how to reduce and reuse our materials.

The EEA’s report highlights three pathways to go for a brighter future, circular economy: smarter use of plastics, increased circularity and use of renewable raw materials. Without their implementation the enormous CO2 emission from plastic production – along other environment polluting factors – will continue to grow from its current status: 13.4 million tonnes, annually.

Another big part of the issue is textiles made from synthetic fibres, like polyester and nylon. According to another EEA report, EU consumers discard 5.8 million tonnes of textiles annually of which about two-thirds consist of synthetic fibres. Plastic-based textiles make up about 60 per cent of clothing, so there are no excuses, sustainable fashion also must be a priority.

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