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The Plastic Problem: moving from a linear to a circular economy


5 min read Partner content

Plastics have enabled society to progress at an unprecedented pace and have facilitated momentous advances in technology. However, it is the inherent durability of plastic which largely accounts for both its success and the plastic waste problem we now face. Our behaviour and choices as consumers or producers of plastic waste are of great importance in resolving the problem. Governments have typically been slow or reluctant to respond to this issue. In this article Dr Thomas Franklin from The University of Manchester’s Royce Institute, outlines how proportionate legislation and policy initiatives will be crucial in the fight against plastic waste.

  • Between 1950 and 2017, 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic had been produced globally. Of this, 5.7 billion tonnes were discarded and just 600 million tonnes were recycled.
  • Our current linear model of plastics production, usage, and disposal is unsustainable.
  • Governments and local authorities should encourage a more circular economy by simplifying recycling options for consumers, introducing harsher fines, and investing more in plastics research.

There can be no denying that plastics are everywhere and firmly here to stay – plastic bottles, packaging, clothing, furniture, car body parts, personal care products; every room in the house will have an item containing some form of plastic. Their ubiquitous nature and versatile properties have, enabled society to progress at an unprecedented pace and facilitated the momentous advances in technology that we have witnessed.

Most plastics are synthetic and made from fossil-fuels. Between 1950 and 2017, 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic had been produced globally, of which 2.6 billion tonnes was in use, 5.7 billion tonnes had been discarded and just 600 million tonnes had been recycled. Production is forecasted to reach 34 billion tonnes by 2050.

A key reason for the success of plastics in consumer products is due in large part to their advantageous physical properties: low-cost, low weight, durability, and resistance to moisture, oxygen and heat. However, it is their inherent durability which largely accounts for both their success and the cause of the plastic waste problem. Plastics do not degrade in timescales that are reasonable and so large amounts of waste accumulate and ultimately infiltrate the wider environment.

Work has been done to look at ways of creating more environmentally friendly plastic and how we recycle it.

Bio-based plastics, derived from organic plant matter or biomass, have been promoted as a solution and suitable for home composting. However, bio-based plastics, such as bio-PET, are chemically identical to their fossil-fuel counterparts and thus do not degrade on acceptable timescales without the use of industrial composters.

Mechanical and chemical recycling are two of the processes used to recycle plastics. Both allow for the end raw material to be used to make new products, but they have drawbacks in terms of costs, quality of the final product and how energy intensive they are.

Circular economy

Our current linear model of plastics production, usage and disposal is unsustainable. A concerted effort is underway globally to drive plastics consumption into a circular economy.  In this model, waste plastic is reused by the consumer or recycled to create new products, consequently meaning that production can be reduced, with a subsequent reduction in fossil fuel usage and CO2 emissions, both from extraction and production.

This is a multidisciplinary issue and must thus involve both technical and social sciences. Technological improvements are needed across waste sectors to facilitate dealing with the influx of plastic waste, yet behavioural changes of consumers and producers are also an essential part of the solution.

The front line against plastic waste

In the face of these seemingly insurmountable problems, it can be easy to feel helpless. However, there are numerous initiatives to be involved with and steps that we can all take to help in tackling this global problem.

We can all put more thought into how we recycle. Effective home recycling means taking conscious action and more effort than simply disposing of items with general waste. Confusingly, different local authorities will accept different types of plastics (e.g. plastic bottles or food packaging) in their kerbside collections and navigating these regulations can be confusing. For those plastics not accepted, such as flexible packaging, special collection points are starting to emerge. Failure to get this right could mean the recycling is rejected and sent to landfill.

The UK government has also recently announced a Plastic Packaging Tax (PPT), which stipulates that plastic products must contain a minimum of 30 % recycled content or incur an additional charge of £200/tonne.

Greater focus should also be placed upon reducing and re-using. Our society is built upon growth and single-use items that are cheap to replace. By reducing the amount of plastic consumed, less plastic needs to be produced. By re-using the plastics currently in use, less plastic also needs to be produced. In both cases, the amount of waste plastic generated can be reduced.

Policy recommendations

Governments are typically slow to respond or reluctant to change, yet legislation and policy initiatives are crucial in the fight against plastic waste.

  • Rapid roll out of nationwide plastic bottle return schemes, requiring participation from government, local authorities, industry, retailers and consumers. Government and local authorities must work together to introduce legislation for nationwide cohesion of collection locations and return pay-out amounts. Industry and retail involvement is also essential, and evident in countries where these schemes have already been implemented with great success (e.g. Germany), to incentivise consumers to return and recycle plastic bottles.
  • Standardised kerbside recycling implemented nationwide by local authorities to minimise consumer confusion and facilitate easier recycling options. Additional funding and resources from government may also be required to upgrade recycling centres to facilitate standardisation.
  • Harsher penalties for the largest plastic waste producers, in a similar manner to the PPT, enforced by government legislature. The incentives for complying must increase to encourage compliance across all sectors.
  • Increased amounts and availability of research funding supplied by government. Additional industry collaboration, funding and project support will also be essential. Incorporating greater amounts of recycled content into new plastic products can cause a greater number of failures/defects due to degradation induced by the recycling process. Therefore, research must continue to address this and similar challenges.

Policy@Manchester aims to impact lives globally, nationally and locally through influencing and challenging policymakers with robust research-informed evidence and ideas. Visit our website to find out more, and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our latest news.


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