Published: 23:50, April 23, 2024 | Updated: 09:23, April 24, 2024
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Is ‘waste’ really a barrier to the circular economy?
By Douglas Woodring

In 1967, in his Academy Award-winning role in The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman was told that the future is “plastics”. Today, plastic pollution is one of the top three environmental topics and challenges for all of our economies. Arguably, the “future” is how to recover all the plastic that stains our environment and waters today. However, one of the challenges for remediation and improvements is that many different stakeholders suggest that plastic recycling does not work and has never lived up to its promises, so trust has been lost across many international jurisdictions. 

In contrast, and at the same time, many of the same stakeholders are suggesting that the world needs to move into circular economy systems for the preservation and reuse of materials instead of continuing to exploit virgin materials. This might be difficult to accomplish, but it is certainly possible to make significant strides in the direction of circularity, once our businesses and governments put their minds to it.

Just a few years ago, no one would have guessed that over 175 member states of the United Nations would agree to negotiate, within just two years, a global “plastic treaty” for reducing pollution. We are now in our final year of negotiations, potentially creating a historic and watershed moment for plastic. This means widespread opportunities for those wanting to gain by participating in the heavy lifting of remediating some of the millions of metric tons of plastic existing in our communities today, and which will continue to be created for years to come, even with the expected reductions in virgin feedstock, single-use materials and reuse programs, which are being discussed.

Remediation of plastic in this sense is much like that of carbon reduction or sequestration, except that most do not want it burned or gasified for energy, and landfills are becoming an increasingly expensive option. Plastic pollution, which affects every UN member state, however, cannot be improved upon simply with “future” regulations, commitments and programs for reduction. A wide range of solutions are needed and are actually already available, but these options are often not given the visibility or chances needed to be replicated in global markets. This is partly because recycling is being portrayed as being ineffective, yet it is the only broad program that cuts across communities and governments for the recovery of materials. Without recycling, circular economies cannot be created, nor can brands, big and small, reach their commitments to using recycled content instead of virgin material. In fact, it is estimated that the excess demand for recycled content is over 6 million tons per year, and this will likely grow as member states become more engaged in the outcomes of the plastic treaty, whether voluntary or mandatory.

In the end, it is worth remembering that every piece of plastic left someone’s hand before it became unwanted, which means the solutions are closer than we might think

Ironically, the goals for plastic-pollution reduction and the treaty discussions seem contradictory, as most call for circular economies, but simultaneously refer to plastic as “waste”. In today’s world of constrained resources, circular economies would produce little waste, reusing existing materials as feedstock for new ones. “Waste” is something that should be disposed of and not harnessed or repurposed into new products because of its toxicity or inability to be transformed for future value. Unfortunately, many stakeholders and the media have used the words “plastic” and “waste” interchangeably. This has significant ramifications when interpreted without due consideration, particularly with respect to global circularity and trade. No one wants waste in their countries, but everyone wants to reduce pollution. This is relevant to Hong Kong as well, as the city has little plastic-recovery capacity, which hinders innovators and investors like New Life Plastics (NLP), which do not have the volumes of daily feedstock to keep their operations running at total capacity. If there were agreed-upon and qualified trade regulations, NLP could import PET bottles (PET is polyethylene terephthalate, known as the “safe” plastic that won’t cause harm) and other feedstock from neighboring countries, creating jobs in all countries involved, while keeping their facilities running at total capacity until local collection meets their daily demand.

In the past, few countries focused on the import regulations on feedstock materials for recycling, and trade was abused by the shipment of truly unrecyclable waste. China’s ban on plastic feedstock imports in 2018 was a greatly needed shock felt around the world to bring focus to the issue of unqualified and unverified materials being sent across borders. The fact that trade was abused before 2018 does not mean it will be abused today, with new, standardized and agreed-upon regulations for the movement of feedstock for recycling, which can be optimized via these treaty discussions and the Basel Amendments on plastic. These solutions should be part of the focus of the plastic treaty, as most countries do not have the resources, size or scale to create their domestic circular systems, nor should they, as this is not what happens with the movement of commodities, manufacturing, and competitive advantages.

Most of the technologies exist to repurpose almost every type of plastic made today, without turning it to energy or being landfilled; they are just not widely scaled or available. This is where the opportunities come to those who will be part of the facilitation of the treaty’s objectives. If circular economies are to come to fruition, and the member states want plastic pollution reduction to become a reality, then we should not confuse plastic and waste. If “waste” is applied to describe and regulate plastic as soon as it finishes its first life as a package or product, it does not even have the chance to be recovered and circulated because the reputation of the material is such that few give it a chance to become something new.

The challenges facing recycling and the circular economy relate mainly to the costs of cleaning and sorting material, which are a direct function of most of today’s waste recovery systems (both technical and societal). They are not designed with a focus on the recovery of plastic, and this has hindered the ability of recycling to truly scale as needed for the remediation of global pollution problems.

The current UN plastic-treaty negotiations are the most significant chance we have ever had to fix a broken system. This is where we can embrace and facilitate the creation of global circular economies for this material, but this critical nuance of waste-versus-plastic feedstock has hardly been addressed. In the end, it is worth remembering that every piece of plastic left someone’s hand before it became unwanted, which means the solutions are closer than we might think.

The author is founder and managing director of Ocean Recovery Alliance, an NGO based in Hong Kong and California that focuses on plastic pollution.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.