HomeOpinion & AnalysisPlastic waste management: Rethinking a circular economy

Plastic waste management: Rethinking a circular economy


A WORLD without plastics or synthetic organic polymers seems unimaginable. The most enduring, insidious and intimate product in the world, it is everywhere and the evidence is unmistakable; we are living in The Plastic Age (The “Plasticene”).

Terrence Muvoti

Cheap, flexible and multipurpose plastic has become the ubiquitous material of today’s fast-moving economy. Modern society would be lost without it. Producing over 300 million metric tonnes of plastic every year globally, plastic remains a key material in the global economy but low rates of collection, reuse and recycling, emissions of microplastic from product wear and tear and often insufficient disposal measures are leading to far-reaching environmental, health, social and economic impacts.

Every minute the equivalent of one rubbish truck of plastic is leaking into streams and rivers, ultimately ending up in the ocean. This has a devastating impact on marine wildlife. An estimated 100 million marine animals die each year due to discarded plastic and the problem is set to get worse. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation report on the New Plastics Economy estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.

Far-reaching, plastics have a considerable footprint and impacts on biodiversity (entanglement and ingestion by turtles, birds, fish and mammals), water and air quality (leaching of chemicals from plastics and release of plastic particles), human health (ingestion of plastic through seafood), society (degraded environments, costs of clean up and loss of wellbeing and livelihoods), economy (impacts on tourism, fishing and shipping, and loss of secondary materials), and public finance (municipal budgets for clean-up).

Globally, there is a growing recognition of the need to address marine litter and rethink our approach to plastics and plastic packaging within the economy. Measures that enable a transition to a circular economy can avoid waste and reduce marine litter and contribute to keeping plastics and their value in the economy.

A circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design. This means that materials constantly flow around a “closed loop” system, rather than being used once and then discarded. As a result, the value of materials, including plastics, is not lost by being thrown away.

There’s nothing like a crisis to spur on the search for a solution; China and the European Union (EU) have signed a memorandum of understanding on the circular economy at the 20th EU-China summit held in Beijing from July 16 to 17, 2018 after facing significant natural resource consumption and environmental degradation. The 2012 Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development emphasised the need to develop indicators of progress that decouple economic growth and environmental burden. Zimbabwe should also tape into these global initiatives, as a country we cannot afford to be late comers in cases in which we are sometimes the most affected.

The linear “take-make-dispose” model of consumption means that products get manufactured, bought, used once or twice for the purpose they were made, and then thrown away. Moving away from this model of consumption is a key priority in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SDG12). From a purely economic perspective, discarding plastic makes zero sense. According to the World Economic Forum, plastic packaging waste represents an $80 billion to $120 billion loss to the global economy every year; thus a more circular approach is needed, where we not only use less packaging, but design the packaging that can be reused, recycled or composted.

The circular economy is gaining growing attention as a potential way for society to increase prosperity while reducing demands on finite raw materials and minimising negative externalities. Such a transition requires a systemic approach, which entails moving beyond incremental improvements to the existing model as well as developing new collaboration mechanisms. Concrete and game-changing steps have to be taken for us to achieve the future we want that is anchored in a set of universally applicable Sustainable Development Goals. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development underscores a common determination to take bold and transformative steps towards a better future for all.

Plastics and plastics pollution do not respect borders. Plastic products are traded globally and marine litter crosses continents in ocean currents, meaning the responsibility falls on all countries to act. A change in mentality where waste is recognised and treated as a resource needs to take place. All players within the products value chain; from designers to recyclers, from retailers to communities need to work together in partnerships to prioritise innovations aimed at increasing efficiency and ecological sustainability.

An analysis carried out by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s has found that a transition to a circular economy will reduce air pollution and create opportunities for new value and economic growth. Strategies, legislation, and policy tools such as eco-design, eco-labelling, extended producer responsibility and green supply chains will also help to address plastic management.

The leakage of all plastics into the environment, including the marine biosphere, must be prevented, and other negative externalities from the life cycle of plastic products must be reduced. Plastics do not truly degrade, but rather gradually break down into ever more numerous smaller particles; last year’s plastics remain this year’s problem and a problem for potentially hundreds of years into the future.

Plastic waste is a problem we can solve and need to solve now. Near term benefits will be made by better waste management and less use, especially single use of plastics.

But ultimately this problem requires a circular economy approach, where used plastic becomes a feedstock rather than a waste. There should be political will and technical ability to solve our plastic waste problem. We need to move towards adopting more sustainable, environmentally-friendly practices.

Together we can stem the tide of plastic waste. Together we can change the world and save mother earth.

 Terrence Muvoti writes in his personal capacity; with special interests in political economy, environmental diplomacy & public policy. He can be contacted on terrencemuvoti@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @muvoti_terrence.

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