Islands of plastic in the oceans, mountains of plastic in invisible areas of cities, plastic packaging that has become part of animals' bodies... All this explains how plastic gained its bad reputation.
But is plastic really harmful? Or is it a scapegoat for the systems of production and consumption that we, as humans, have designed incorrectly?
This week, we are discussing the place of plastic in circular economy and how it should be considered in the transformation process.
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Can plastic transform despite its bad reputation?
Transformation of plastic
In the recent years, discussions around plastics, plastic pollution in the oceans and the piles of rubbish created by single-use plastics have been widely debated. Although this leads to a war against plastic material, in fact, plastic makes a great contribution to the development of the modern world thanks to its durable, flexible, and strong structure. Plastic, which was declared "bad" due to people's unconscious use of it, has many positive effects in all areas of life.
Today, an average of 40% of all plastic is used in packaging processes. Although we think that plastic is used intensively, especially for packaging, it is predicted that by 2050, more than 318 million tonnes of plastic will be used annually for packaging alone.
Plastic, which has so many uses, can become the most valuable material of the modern world with a properly designed system. The damage to the environment and social life is not due to the current structure of plastic, but rather to humanity's inability to consume plastic responsibly. In order to overcome these problems, we need a circular plastic system that is redesigned according to the principles of circular economy and will be realised by thinking down to the finest detail.
Despite its bad reputation, plastic, which will be the most important material in the world if its usage areas are designed correctly, and its place in circular economy are the main topics of our discussion this week. Our discussion this week is accompanied by the "The Plastics Programme" report prepared by the Platform for Accelerating Circular Economy (PACE)
A system for circular plastics in 10 steps
In the report prepared by PACE, the plastic system suitable for circular economy is discussed on the axis of the duties and responsibilities of governments, private sector and non-governmental organisations that we include in every article.
Reminder from Circular Economy 101: Circular economy is a system of thought in which all stakeholders that make up social structures have interdependent duties and responsibilities, and everyone should be included in the process of transformation. For this reason, not directly including the duties and responsibilities of consumers in the report can be seen as a critical error. Unfortunately, the belief that the transformation of governments, the private sector and NGOs will naturally lead to the transformation of consumers is the biggest obstacle to the full realisation of the transition to circular economy.
1- Elimination of plastics with negative effects
Some types of plastics used today pose a danger to all living things on earth due to the harmful substances they contain. For this reason, the first step is to decide which plastics will not be used and to remove them from use in a certain order.
2- Supporting designs suitable for reuse and recycling
The biggest problem with plastics is that disposable alternatives are not reusable or recyclable. For this reason, disposable plastics, which have many uses in our daily lives, can be seen as the main cause of pollution. From this point of view, it is necessary to change the design of single-use plastics for reuse or recycling, which are also critical in circular economy. However, it should not be forgotten that recycling is the last resort in circular economy, it is not preferred. For this reason, it is important not only for plastics but also for all materials to design products with a focus on reuse, not recycling.
3- Hygiene and safety concerns
The most important reason for the emergence of single-use plastics is the possibility of harming consumer health when plastics used in products such as food and beverages are reused. Although packaging a product with a plastic that will be used only once creates confidence in terms of health on the consumer side, this may not be valid for every product, or with innovative solutions, it may be possible to transform plastic into reusable alternatives, especially in food products. For this reason, plastics need to be redesigned with a focus on issues such as safety and hygiene, which are the biggest concerns of consumers and regulations.
4- Consumer awareness
As mentioned above, consumers are critical in the transition to circular economy. Other than raising consumer awareness as mentioned in the report, it is critical to present innovative business models that will change consumption habits, and include consumers in the process.
5- New business models for environmental, social and economic achievements
Circular economy also puts innovative business models at its centre. Of course, this situation is also critical for the use of plastic. In particular, the economic potential of alternatives such as reuse requires the promotion of circular business models and the cooperation of innovation-centred initiatives and private sector representatives.
6- Recycling systems
As we have mentioned in our previous articles, the recycling of finished products in circular economy is a very difficult issue due to the limited systems created by the current, linear economy. All products that have been utilised but not properly re-incorporated into the value chain should be treated as resources whose value have been destroyed. Perhaps the first step should be the establishment of a functional recycling system that is suitable for the proper recycling of plastic, which is widely used especially in packaging processes.
7- Waste management facilities
Proper management of wastes, i.e. resources, within circular economy is important for the continuity of the cycles. Therefore, all products, such as end-of-use plastics, must be correctly sorted and included in upcycling/recycling processes. However, this process should start with the municipalities and the placement of waste bins on every street that allow this distinction to be made. If you have to separate your waste (resources) at home and throw them all in the same bin when you go out on the street, this may indicate a lack of infrastructure. Here, of course, it is of critical importance to educate the consumers on this issue, to create penalty systems with regulations if necessary, and to ensure social transformation.
8- Second-hand/recycled plastic economy
Circular economy creates not only environmental and social benefits. As the name suggests, it has a great economic potential that has not yet been fully calculated. For this reason, creating a competitive market with a focus on upcycling/recycling and reuse may enable the private sector to focus on the reuse of these products instead of producing plastics from scratch.
9- Humane working processes
This item is critical not only for the process of redesigning plastics in accordance with circular economy principles, but also for a total transition to circular economy. Although circular economy is considered globally only with its environmental impacts, it has many important effects. For example, its impact on social life would bring social welfare, and the acquisition of new competencies by people through new business areas. For this reason, it should be considered not only in terms of decent work, but also as a redesign of our existing social systems and a transition to an innovative system in which people, living beings, and nature will prevail at the same time.
10- Renewable material opportunities
Some types of plastic have a structure that cannot be reused with existing technologies. This is already the biggest factor that gives plastic its bad reputation today. However, a proper understanding of circular economy and a transformation process that puts innovation at its centre can turn this situation around. Replacing the materials in plastics with reusable alternatives has significant potential both environmentally, socially, and economically.
As we always say, circular economy requires a total transformation. For this reason, although the above-mentioned items have been addressed through specific focus areas, the impact of all items on all stakeholders along the value chain should be analysed. Designing plastics to be fully reusable is not enough to establish a circular economy on its own. It is necessary to carefully consider the system down to the smallest detail, to identify all possible scenarios and to design processes to prevent waste generation in the first place. This is a critical process that needs to be carried out with patience and requires a change in mindsets for social change.
What is the role of the consumer in plastic use? Why are consumers not involved in the process for the transformation of plastic, one of the most widely used materials in daily life? Share your thoughts and let's continue our discussion together.
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