A recycled world is possible

Plastic rubbish washing up on the ebach.

Imagine a world where the only resources we have to make new stuff are recycled materials. All the DVD players, toys, domestic appliances, cars and construction products would have to be made of so-called ‘secondary materials’, materials that have had a former life, as opposed to primary materials that come directly from mineral resource or fossil fuels. What effect would this have? David Lerpiniere, Principal Consultant at Resource Futures shares his thoughts on the circular economy in this guest blog.

David Lerpiniere - Recycled world

Firstly, we’d make far less stuff. We currently produce about 400 million tonnes of plastic each year, yet the proportion of plastic recycled is at most 20%. In short, the majority of plastics we produce are either landfilled, incinerated or lost in the wider environment, even once you take into account plastics that are locked up in long-life applications such as building materials. Imagine a world where the shelves are only 20% full. Gone would be the acres and acres of retail outlets and with it, our weekend pastime of shopping. Items like disposable straws, bottles and plastic cutlery would rapidly disappear; even faster than is currently happening in response to consumer pressure. We are already seeing UK and European legislation heading this way.

We would reuse items more and what we would make would be far more resilient and repairable. No longer would we be happy to dispose and replace. We just wouldn’t be able to. Second hand markets, already growing fast due to the likes of Ebay and Gumtree and Alibaba, would take another leap forward. Local repair shops might reappear, perhaps growing from the repair-café initiative that is spreading fast. Basically, we would value our stuff more.

We’d get far better at recovering items and materials that have reached the end of their lives. Collection systems would be better. In fact, I’d bet that we’d start hoovering up the huge quantity of waste plastics that litter the planet – in landfills, on beaches, in the sea – to turn them into new and useful items. And the design of items we use would be simpler, so that we could collect and reuse them more easily. The range of polymers used in plastic products would reduce. We currently use a bewildering number of different polymers to make products. This makes recycling difficult as these different polymers must be separated, something that is costly and frankly infeasible for all but the most common polymers you might recognise such as PET, HDPE and PP.

And we’d have to quickly figure out ways to identify the numerous additives that are used in plastic items. These are used to impart properties such as fire resistance, resilience and degradability. We’d want to make sure that they don’t affect the recycled materials we are producing. We wouldn’t want degradability enhancers in our recycled plastics, they would just make the products we manufacture fall apart faster. And we certainly wouldn’t want potentially harmful additives in materials that might be re-used, except perhaps in very controlled and contained applications (such as construction products). Many harmful additives have been phased out, but some may still be present as a legacy in older products.

This all sounds rather difficult but it is already happening. The EU’s circular economy package, adopted this week, sets challenging targets and sets a precedent for increasing circularity of materials. The new EU Plastics Strategy follows a similar course. And UK government is on a similar track, with the 25 year Environment Plan including a number of aspirations focused on reducing plastic waste, including eliminating avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042. Industry is also seeing the challenge and taking action. Recent months have seen a number of major retail brands and supermarkets making pledges to reduce plastic waste, most recently in the form of the Plastics Pact.

The benefits would be huge. It would create markets for recycled materials – markets which are badly needed to boost plastics recycling rates globally, as our new report for the OECD shows. It would help drive local economies that are focused on reuse and repairability. It would address so-called ‘demand-side’ market failures in the current system – namely, we collect recycled materials but there’s limited demand because primary plastic is so cheap. And finally, using recycled plastics in products generates significantly less greenhouse emissions than using primary plastics, which could be critical in helping us to combat climate change.

This isn’t going to happen overnight. But this world is coming. Either through consumer pressure, market forces or legislation, or most likely a combination of all of these. So next time you buy something, just think: would I be able to buy it if all we have are recycled materials?

David Lerpiniere is Principal Consultant at Resource Futures, and co-author of a new report, Improving Markets for Recycled Plastics: Trends, Prospects and Policy Responses, published this week by the OECD