How much of the plastics economy is circular?

Peter Hopkinson, Professor in Circular Economy and Co-Director Exeter Centre for the Circular Economy, explains how the vital role of single use plastic in protecting workers and patients during the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the complex issues we face in trying to address the increasing use of plastic in society.

As quickly as we try to reduce plastic in one area, such as reducing single use plastic bags or banning straws, other uses continue to grow and the realisation that plastic pervades our lives, much of it hidden.

To reduce the amount of plastic in circulation requires a circular economy approach.  A circular economy aims to reduce waste by the continual reuse of materials and resources. Rather than the cradle to grave model that we use with resources now, a circular economy is about cradle to cradle, reutilising materials when they come to the end of their first life.

It is encouraging that much public opinion and media attention is focussed on reducing plastic packaging. Programmes such as Blue Planet II with pictures of wildlife dying and choking due to the build-up of plastic debris have highlighted the huge problem of macroplastics and microplastics in the environment. These are some of the most striking impacts of plastics. However, there are other everyday sources of plastic, that may surprise many people, that are of equal concern and potential impact.

With fellow researchers from the Exeter Centre for Circular Economy at the University of Exeter we have been studying circular economy plastics systems. We have found that in the in South West Region of the UK, where Exeter is based, less than 4% of the 1.2M tonnes of all plastic consumed and disposed each year is recycled. The majority (78%) of it is landfilled or incinerated.

The fate of the recycled plastic is unknown but most of it likely to be downcycled into lower grade plastic items. Only a relatively small percentage of plastic is upcycled – meaning it is re-used at the same quality as the original plastic or directly re-used. Given that household recycling rates in the region are on average around 45% and have a target of 50% by 2020, how is this possible?

The reasons are that plastic has many different uses and many of these are not collected through a household kerbside collection. As a result, households contain large stocks of plastic which eventually will need to be disposed.

We have designed a Household Plastic Footprint Calculator which measures all the sources of plastic purchased, often unknowingly in a home. Each household in the South West Region contains about one tonne of plastic. Around half of this is in building products such as windows, drainpipes, gutters, and doors. The next biggest source is in our cars. Furniture, carpets, and household white goods such as fridges, cookers and vacuum cleaners all contain large amount of plastic that is difficult to separate when items are replaced or come to the end of life. Many items of clothing, including sports and outdoor gear, contain high percentages of polymers.  Toys and games consoles are also characterised by high levels of plastic. Given its short life span the amount of plastic packaging in our homes at any one time is a small part of the total stock, although given the number of packaged items we purchase represents about 30% of the total amount disposed each year.

And it is not just households we have to consider. Large quantities of plastic are unaccounted for and a significant proportion is fly tipped or finds its way into the environment. This includes domestic sewage systems or into soil, surface water or via particles from tyres, road surface paints or litter. In our local region, we also have a major fishing industry which uses and disposes of around 6000 tonnes of plastic per annum, much of it unaccounted for and being harmful to wildlife. Over the past 10 years, on average 27% of all plastic on the region’s beaches is from fishing. Other parts of the world will tell a similar story.

There is no doubt plastic is useful, having numerous applications. Therefore, the challenge for us all is to ensure we use the right materials for the application and in every case, create the right systems  that enable plastic to be recovered more easily at the end of its first life and be reprocessed where it can be retained at its highest quality and value to be used again and again.

Given the scale of the challenge, what can organisations and individuals do? Here are a few simple practical actions.

Avoid

  • Use packaging free or plastic free retailers locally if you have one. Some supermarkets are trialling this approach and there are an increasing number of local shops offering this.

Exchange or borrow

  • Initiatives such as Warp It facilitate the exchange of furniture and equipment between organisations nationally in the UK.
  • The Library of Things approach where individuals and organisations can borrow household items, tools, and business equipment.

Re-use

  • Reuse centres and networks, keeping items (from household to construction) in use for longer are often run by local councils or a as a community enterprise.
  • Car and bike sharing schemes now operate in many cities, providing transport without the need for buying – giving access to electric vehicles.

Repair

  • Repair Cafes, workshops, and mending initiatives are emerging across such as The Repair Café

Clean up and campaign

For more information on Exeter’s Circular Economy research activities, the recently funded UKRI National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Hub aims to establish the scientific evidence, tools and methods required to support the implementation of a circular economy across key resource flows https://ce-hub.org


Author

Professor Peter Hopkinson is Professor in Circular Economy and Co-Director of the Exeter Centre for the Circular Economy at the University of Exeter Business School