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Circular Economy Emerges as Key Strategy to Reduce Plastics Waste

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From the United States to the United Kingdom, there are glimmers of interest in a circular economy for plastics—both to reduce waste of a long-lasting product derived from fossil fuels, and to capitalize on lucrative emerging revenue streams.  

In the UK, a coalition of environmental groups that includes Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace is urging the federal government to reverse course on plans to produce energy from waste incineration, The Guardian reports [1]. Should the expansion of this incineration program continue, said in a recent open letter to policy-makers, the UK will “lock us into an additional 10 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year by 2030, primarily from the burning of plastics.”

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The signatories added that while “the amount of waste incinerated in the UK increased from 4.9 million tonnes in 2014 to 10.8 million tonnes in 2017-18 and is set to continue rising,” recycling rates have plateaued, meaning the country will almost certainly miss its target of seeing 50% recycling by the end of this year. 

And while reuse is first in the ideal hierarchy of waste treatment hierarchy, reusing items is still not “talked about at scale as often” as recycling [3], they note—particularly where plastics are concerned.

In the U.S., meanwhile, investment firm Closed Loop Partners is encouraging uptake of reuse systems as a way to reduce the need for resource extraction, Waste Dive reports [4]. The company has invested in Algramo, a start-up based in Chile that builds and distributes vending machines that refill household cleaning products, allowing customers to purchase only the amount they need using purpose-built, refillable containers. 

Georgia Sherwin, Closed Loop’s director of communications and strategic initiatives, praised Algramo’s innovation for interrupting the vicious cycle in which low-income families living week to week fall victim to marketing schemes that have them purchasing food or household products in small quantities at higher prices—simply because they can’t afford the up-front cost of buying more efficiently in bulk. Under Algramo’s system, after buying the initial receptacle (US$0.04 for a 35-millilitre bottle, according to OpenIdeo [5]), customers can purchase bulk products at a discounted rate, thereby saving money while eliminating a significant source of plastic waste.

Sherwin added that, along with such market-driven innovations, policy is a critical tool “in setting the vision and really educating people on the potential [6] of the circular economy,” as well as “an important lever for incentivizing positive change.” 

Policy also has a role to play in redressing systemic equity and the lack of diversity in conversations about advancing the circular economy, she noted. 

“As the circular economy continues to grow and develop, it’s about making sure everyone’s voices are heard, and that people understand how historically under-represented communities have not been at the table,” she told Waste Dive. “There’s a number of different levers that we need to pull to ensure that they’re part of the conversation.” 

Closed Loop recently released a report titled The Circular Shift: Four Key Drivers of Circularity in North America that tracks interest in the circular economy, Waste Dive says.

“The connection between climate change and circularity specifically is very, very important,” Sherwin said. “We want to continue to build that connection, and make sure people understand how the circular economy is really critical in fighting climate change and mitigating the risks brought on by that.”