Momentum has been growing not only within the academic community but within industry and government agencies to begin to understand the finite nature of the resources we consume and the energy we require as a result. Waste is key to understanding the goals set out by a clean energy economy, and utilising and minimising it are the central motivations of circular economic thinking.
The world is facing a momentous leap forward in the quantity of raw materials it will require as 3 billion new middle-class consumers enter the global market in coming decades. Within the plastics industry alone, packaging makes up 26% by volume globally. Even if global recycling rates rose from today’s 14% to more than 55% — which would be higher than the rate achieved today by some of the best-performing countries — annual requirements for virgin feedstock would still double by 2050. As a lurid example of this, a new MacArthur Foundation report explains that “given projected growth in consumption, in a business-as-usual scenario, by 2050 oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish (by weight), and the entire plastics industry will consume 20% of total oil production, and 15% of the annual carbon budget.”
Evidently, measures must be taken to halt this flow of valuable waste. A 2012 report valued some $11.4 billion worth of recoverable materials being landfilled each year, while a joint World Resources Institute and MacArthur Foundation report puts the figure at closer to $100 billion for plastic packaging alone.
Whatever the true figure lost to the recycling industry each year, the European Commission has drawn up plans to engage more directly with both local collection agencies and set out guidelines for producers to allow more meaningful development of circular economy ideas; such as a reduction in the quantity of unrecyclable plastics generated and other Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws. The EU Circular Economy Strategy is certainly an in-depth document, with an ambitious banner objective of 65% municipal waste recycling by 2030, 75% packaging waste recycling by 2030, various landfill laws (max 10% going to landfill), specific laws concerning industrial symbiosis (utilising one industries waste stream as another’s resource input) and EPR-style laws and incentives for producers to support recycling and remanufacturing. Interestingly, the Commission hopes to achieve this through “pragmatism, enforcement and implementation”; these being the qualities that are “really the basis of the new proposal”, deputy head Fulvia Raffaelli explains, along with the business opportunities the ammended package would create.
This is important as many countries simply ignore EU legislation, as was the case in March 2015 when 27 member states were fined for failure to comply with the Energy Efficiency Directive. A brief run-down of the proposed legislature is as follows:
- funding of over €650 million (£458 million) under Horizon 2020 and €5.5 billion (£3.9 billion) under the structural funds;
- actions to reduce food waste including a common measurement methodology, improved date marking, and tools to meet the global Sustainable Development Goal to halve food waste by 2030;
- development of quality standards for secondary raw materials to increase the confidence of operators in the single market;
- measures in the Ecodesign Working Plan for 2015-2017 to promote reparability, durability and recyclability of products, in addition to energy efficiency;
- a revised regulation on fertilisers, to facilitate the recognition of organic and waste-based fertilisers in the single market and support the role of bio-nutrients;
- a strategy on plastics in the circular economy, addressing issues of recyclability, biodegradability, the presence of hazardous substances in plastics, and the Sustainable Development Goals target for significantly reducing marine litter;
- a series of actions on water reuse including a legislative proposal on minimum requirements for the reuse of wastewater.
Some would say that having recycling, remanufacture and materials reacquisition designed in from the start is not cost-effective, with a lack of standards and coordination across the value chain allowing the proliferation of materials, formats, labelling, collection schemes, and sorting and reprocessing systems, which collectively hamper the development of effective markets.
However, studies have estimated that a shift to the circular economy development path in just one core industry could generate annual total benefits for Europe of around €1 trillion (USD 1.06 trillion).
The Plastics Industry
Within the plastics industry alone many solutions have been found to be cost-effective, while at the same time lowering emissions, such as by directly converting greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide (GHG-based sources) or using biomass (bio-based sources) as feedstocks. Innovators claim that the production of GHG-based plastics is already cost competitive to current fossil based plastics for certain applications and qualify as carbon negative materials. Some bio-based plastics also have been shown to have a negative global warming potential with -2.2 kilogram CO2e per kilogram of bio-based PE produced compared to 1.8 kilogram CO2e per kilogram of fossil-based PE produced. Products such as Eben Bayers micelium-based plastic/styrofoam/cellulose substitute is used to replace everything from packaging to chairs through company Ecovative Design. Chemical marker systems are advancing: the European Union’s Polymark project, for example, is developing a system to reliably detect and sort food-contact PET, while WRAP is working on machine-readable fluorescent inks and sorting technologies to improve polymer identification. The adoption of reprocessing technologies such as depolymerisation has been limited due to economics, but in the Netherlands Ioniqa Technologies has developed a cost-competitive process for PET that takes place at relatively low operating temperatures. The production of plastics from captured greenhouse gases has also been piloted and is claimed to be cost competitive. For example, Newlight’s AirCarbon technology can convert methane to PHA, or carbon dioxide to polyurethane and thermoplastics.
The enablement of secondary markets for recycled materials through the introduction and scale-up of matchmaking mechanisms, industry commitments and/or policy interventions; and the pursuit of innovation opportunities that have the potential to scale up, such as investments in new or improved materials and reprocessing technologies; and exploration of the enabling role of policy are all considered key to the progress of the circular economy.
Finally, waste-to-energy is now a burgeoning industry world-wide, with modern waste-to-energy facilities producing electricity and heat in boilers designed for complete combustion. While waste-to-energy has been slow to take off in the US, it’s big business in Europe, driven largely by EU waste legislation. Even in the past five years, it accounted for nearly 60% of the worldwide investments in WtE plants. And now the Chinese government plans to build 300 waste-to-energy plants over the next three years, including the world’s largest facility in Shenzhen.
All added up, a circular economy model looks like the practical answer to the planet’s emerging resource problems, as well as mitigating the growing rise in emissions – thus providing answers to questions that look set to continue.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation promotional video showcasing the CE100: