Why do we need a circular plastic economy?

Why do we need a circular plastic economy?

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In a bid to keep waste away from landfills and oceans, plastic manufacturing units are switching from a linear model to a circular economy by concentrating efforts on recycling and upcycling.

Plastic, a vital component of the packaging and food industry, comes with its set of boons and banes. Its versatility allows it to adapt to numerous needs in industries. Due to its lightweight and ability to provide a substantial barrier against light, moisture and oxygen, flexible plastic packaging is used by almost all major CPG brands to pack food and other items. However, ensuring its benefits are retained in the economy without letting the waste escape into the environment is a challenge that the flexible packaging sector must accomplish. The pandemic's disruption across sections is well known. Apart from slowing down the waste value chain, there was a significant increase in plastic consumption due to safety reasons, thus increasing the waste quantum as well.

The Linear Approach

According to estimates, 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced in the last 70 years. Of that, only 10% has ever been recycled. The packaging sector is one of the fastest-growing ones globally and the fifth largest in India when it comes to the packaging sector. As a result, plastic waste has become a huge global problem, and it may only get worse. As per a report, plastic production is projected to double by 2040, and the amount of plastic waste finding its way into the oceans is expected to triple to 29 million tonnes. According to the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), the world produces 300 million tonnes of plastic waste each year. Whereas the plastic recycling capacity across the world is projected to be 46 million tonnes a year, as per OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

Compostable plastic packaging is an oft-discussed solution to tackle the problem. While such a solution may work for targeted applications, it may not be a blanket solution. An effective collection and recycling infrastructure are essential but often not in place. Hence, a shift in the model is a must that allows transitioning of plastic packaging, including flexible packaging, from a linear chain to a closed-loop circular one, and this approach has been well included in the latest Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules 2022 issued by GoI (Government of India). The latest guidelines have been chartered to strengthen the circularity of plastic packaging waste, promoting the development of new alternatives to plastics to move towards sustainable plastic packaging. These rules are a step in the right direction to address a range of unresolved issues surrounding post-consumer plastic waste, thus streamlining stakeholder obligation under India's EPR (Extended producer responsibility) regime.

Circular Economy for Plastics

A circular model fosters an eco-system where manufacturers design and create products that can be put to reuse easily and restored multiple times through recycling and upcycling. Furthermore, it redefines the current production and consumption patterns in a way where business and growth support positive economic, social, and environmental benefits. The change occurs throughout supply chains, commercial models, and life cycles, reflecting across dimensions from the choice of raw material to the product's design to the recycling process and the out-of-use stage. As in a linear economy, a circular one too aims to meet the basic human needs and generates economic benefits but leaves a minimal environmental impact.

Turning Waste into Wealth

Firms play an important part by scaling up recycling strength to help build a circular model. Efforts need to keep plastic in the economy and out of the environment, converting waste into wealth. Businesses producing and selling packaging have a responsibility beyond production and sale. The accountability stretches from it being collected and reused or composted ethically.

Apart from reducing the plastic dump and collection of post-consumer waste, there's another dimension to its production. It's about limiting the use of new fossil fuel-based raw materials and replacing it with PCR (post-consumer resin) content that helps establish a closed-loop economy. A simple 4R approach – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Return- should be the way ahead to manage the plastic waste stock and flow. It is known that plastic takes a long time to degrade. But it is possible to use the long shelf-life of plastic as an advantage. By implementing the right technology, transforming plastic from waste to wealth can be convenient. This requires an investment in a combination of reforms in business models, resource management, packaging design, reprocessing technologies, and recycling infrastructure.

Innovations to Give Plastics a Second Life

Adding value to what would otherwise become a trash can make plastic-waste recycling more attractive and environmentally beneficial. Of late, various innovations in a bid to give plastic a life beyond its original purpose have surfaced. These include easy recycling of post-consumer plastic waste generated from MLP mixed plastic waste into pellets, following a zero-emission practice. These pellets can then be used to make products with economic value, such as buckets, mugs, and dustbins; park benches; tiles and tables; and roads and road dividers.

Packaging companies are also working on creating a perfect closed loop with CPG firms by supplying them with high-quality PCR films' based packaging structures made out of resins derived by upcycling post-consumer PET bottles plastic waste. The idea of 'minimum recycled content' has also been introduced in the new EPR guidelines. Biodegradable packaging that breaks down into fertilizer within a fixed period of time after coming into contact with soil is another noteworthy change in the very structure of packaging.

Roadblocks and Solutions

Reducing waste and limiting the use of new raw materials can be reinforced by recycling, which extends the lifecycle of the material. However, the lack of information about the resources for reuse and infrastructure puts the process on the back foot. To tackle this issue, AI-powered sharing platforms or other community resources need to be within reach of packaging manufacturing units to bridge this gap. Further, these asset-sharing platforms will allow businesses to earn revenue by lending materials or machines that otherwise remain unused. As a significant first, the EPR guidelines 2022 allow for the sale and purchase of surplus extended producer responsibility certificates, thus setting up a market mechanism for plastic waste management, all of which will be facilitated via an online platform.

Another challenge in building a circular system for plastics lies in the obstruction of investments flowing up and down the stream in emerging and advanced economies. To tackle this and other primary issues, a stringent change needs to be put into place at the policy level. This will help resolve inconsistencies in the regulatory environment, local infrastructure and skills, government procurement policies, and overall investment facilitation for the cycle to function smoothly. On a global scale, evaluating regulation in supply chains is necessary to create a favorable framework. Reducing tariffs or subsidies on recycled plastic, recycling technologies, and services would be recommended to incentivize a circular model.

Jeevaraj Pillai, joint president- Flexible Packaging & New Product Development, UFlex

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