Breaking Free From Plastic Pollution
The notion of a circular economy has become popular in the last few years - as consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of how their choices impact the environment. But what exactly is a ‘circular economy’?
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2021);
“...A circular economy is a systemic approach to economic development designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment…it is regenerative by design and aims to gradually decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources”.
A circular economy is beneficial for producers because the life cycle of products is prolonged; raw materials can be reused within the economy, which increases their value and reduces waste. It is also favourable for consumers as it provides them with long-lasting and better quality products, proving more cost effective in the long run.
Breaking free from plastic pollution requires consumers to reflect on both upstream and downstream solutions. Upstream involves examining the source of the problem pre-consumer, and tackling challenges at design stage e.g. using alternative materials to plastics.
In contrast, downstream involves examining the problem after consumer use i.e. post-consumer, tackling challenges after production stage e.g. recycling innovations. Focussing only on upstream or downstream solutions will not enable us to significantly reduce plastic pollution.
Instead, an integrated approach, where consumers understand and can make use of both types of solutions, is key to tackling the plastic pollution problem. At present, there tends to be greater emphasis on downstream solutions; more work needs to be put into developing viable upstream solutions to successfully prevent the pollution problem - acting proactively, not just reactively.
Whether it is the plastic bag discarded on the side of the road, or the reused plastic flower pots placed at the doorstep, plastic products of varied colours, shapes, and purposes are everywhere to be seen. As a consumer, it is critical to understand the life cycle of plastic products, from manufacturing to consumption, recycling and repurposing waste. Of these stages, material engineering comes first.
Depending upon the amounts of plastics used, plastic materials could be divided into typical plastics (e.g. PET, HDPE, PVC), biodegradable plastics (or bio-plastics), and natural alternatives that serve as plastics but with zero plastic components.
To accelerate and scale better materials, replacing plastics is imperative. Thus, 100% renewable, reused or biodegradable plastics and natural alternatives such as organic plastic packaging or products, should all be gradually adopted by producers and consumers.
Amongst the most innovative creations, natural alternatives demonstrate the highest potential, for example, wood by-products that contain cellulose, wheat or barley remnants, palm leaves, and mushroom roots can all be processed for organic and creative packaging; whereas metal, stone, and potato or corn starch can be made of rubbish bags, papers, and loose-fills.
Finally, recycled and reused plastics (100% plastic) are also plastics with the widest application. These plastics can be transformed for public usage - for houses, roads, home appliances, furniture, and even personal beauty products.
As consumers, we have to rely on downstream solutions to dispose of our plastic waste. These include collection services and recycling infrastructure available to process post-use plastic waste. Although downstream recycling innovations alone cannot solve the ever-growing plastic pollution issue, reliable infrastructure within the plastics and recycling sectors can help to mitigate our impact on the world.
Wellers has looked to improve downstream plastics infrastructure in developing nations, such as Kenya, through our partnership with Water Unite.
Many low-income countries do not have accessible downstream recycling infrastructure. In many cases, large amounts of capital will have to be mobilised within this sector to facilitate efficient downstream recycling services. Optimising waste collection rates in low to middle income countries is predicted to have a large impact on mitigating plastic waste leakage into aquatic systems (The Pew Charitable Trust 2020).
Only a marginal amount of plastic packaging is actually created in Kenya; most plastic waste is created as a result of imports which produces around 500,000+ mt of plastic waste (Kenya Association of Manufacturers 2019). Only half of the imported waste is produced domestically, the rest is disposed of by informal sectors or is exported. Kenya’s baseline quota for plastics recycling is less than 10% of plastic waste.
It is therefore vital that the accessibility of downstream plastics infrastructures must be drastically improved to help alleviate the plastic waste problem (The Pew Charitable Trust 2020).
Wellers Impact through Water Unite is helping to create change in this sector and help consumers break free from plastic pollution. The Gjenge Makers programme operates in Kenya and aims to reduce Kenya’s plastic pollution by employing local Kenyans to collect plastic waste, creating local employment opportunities in marginalised communities.
The collected plastic is processed and then used for construction materials, which can be used for domestic living infrastructure such as housing and pavements. This in turn strengthens the chain value of plastics, creates recycled construction materials and creates further employment opportunities within the downstream plastics infrastructure and construction sectors.
Focusing on collecting post-use plastic waste supports a circular economy, although this is not possible for many plastics. Often single-use plastics cannot be recycled due to their composition (Lindwall 2020). Funding upstream solutions of material engineering, combined with downstream services, is vital in decreasing our plastic waste problem.
Using biodegradable materials instead of non-biodegradable plastics provides another way in which we can break free from plastic pollution. By closing the useful life cycle of plastics, the design of bioplastics mimics the attributes of a circular economy.
After usage, bioplastics can be reprocessed mechanically, or organically at the end of their life. The organic pathway leads to the end product of a ‘humus’ biomass which can be used to grow more plants (European Bioplastics 2020).
However, the bioplastics production sector faces two significant problems:
Downstream recycling infrastructures for bioplastics are not universally available. Rural towns and villages in developing countries are more likely to have informal plastic waste collection and disposal services.
Bioplastic products must be separated from regular plastics as they need to be processed in controlled conditions. This prevents methane gas escaping during the process and leads to the creation of biomass.
Until these downstream issues are resolved and coordinated with the upstream solutions, bioplastics may actually hinder rather than help our plastic waste problem.
Buying your groceries and disposing of your waste responsibly, in theory, should be where your responsibilities as a consumer ends. However, it has become evident that as consumers, we must understand that even if we act responsibly, we are ultimately affected by the actions of upstream and downstream solutions. It is crucial that we come together to support businesses and companies who are adopting a business model which encourages a cleaner, circular economy, particularly those who find solutions to our globally growing plastic waste problem.
Wellers Impact is a UK-based, FCA-Regulated Impact Investment Manager which works to unlock community-focused impact through SDG-focused impact investing. Through innovative investment models that utilise fair economics, Wellers Impact originates investment opportunities across three core business activities; real estate developments in partnership with local land-owning not-for-profits in East Africa, financial support for agriculture firms and supply chains globally through sustainable development finance and direct investment into private water, sanitation and plastics recycling firms globally. Investment involves risk. Suitable for Sophisticated, Professional and High Net Worth Investors only.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2021. Upstream Innovation: a guide to packaging solutions. [online] Available at: <https://plastics.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/upstream>.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2021. The Circular Economy In Detail. Available at: <https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/explore/the-circular-economy-in-detail#:~:text=A%20circular%20economy%20is%20a,the%20consumption%20of%20finite%20resources>.
European Bioplastics, 2020. Frequently Asked Questions On Bioplastics. [online] Berlin. Available at: <https://docs.european-bioplastics.org/publications/EUBP_FAQ_on_bioplastics.pdf>.
Kenya Association of Manufacturers, 2019. Kenya Plastic Action Plan. Accelerating a Circular Economy in Kenya. [online] Available at: <https://kam.co.ke/kam/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/KPAP_Document-pages.pdf>.
Lindwall, C., 2020. Single-Use Plastics 101. [online] NRDC. Available at: <https://www.nrdc.org/stories/single-use-plastics-101>.
The Pew Charitable Trust, 2020. Breaking the Plastic Wave - A Comprehensive Assessment Of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution. The Pew Charitable Trust.