Thoughts about …The Circular Economy & Plastic

Ann Marie Newton

There’s something of a resurgence to the ways of yesteryear: there have even been sightings of milkmen in London, and repair cafes are popping up to fulfil the “make do and mend” ethos from World War II.  This is all part of a general movement away from the ‘take, make, dispose’ culture to one of a circular economy.  

The circular economy, with its roots in the 1960’s is becoming a more household phrase now, with the help of organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur foundation. The famous sailor, now Dame Ellen MacArthur, had an epiphany during one of her challenging voyages, when she realised the finite nature of resources.[1]  This led to thoughts that instead of throwing things away when we are done with them, can we repair, reuse and recycle? Can we consider waste as a resource rather then something to be got rid of?  Can we lease rather than buy? The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is now on a mission to accelerate a transition to a circular economy, and is a major player on the world’s stage.

Their latest campaign, in collaboration with the UN and supported by major companies such as Unilever, Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Mars, Danone and L’Oréal, is called “A line in the sand”, and is looking at tackling the problem of plastic waste before it becomes a problem.  Their targets include:

“Eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging and move from single-use to reuse packaging models

Innovate to ensure 100% of plastic packaging can be easily and safely reused, recycled, or composted by 2025

Circulate the plastic produced, by significantly increasing the amounts of plastics reused or recycled and made into new packaging or products”[2]

This initiative will of course, be of particular interest to packaging technologists, but also to anyone working in the Fashion, Home or Food sectors today.  Plastic touches all of our lives, in so many ways.  For Technologists who work with Textiles, consideration could be given to how plastic fibres such as polyester are made, and from what.  Are microfibres being used, which could easily shed tiny fibres into our water system? Are plastics blended with other fibres, like polyester/cotton which will make recycling harder at the end of the products life? How the fibres, yarns and fabrics are packaged for transportation, is another facet to consider.  For the garment technologist, initial questions could include:  what thread is being used? If a polyester fabric is in play, what happens to the off cuts?  How are the garments wrapped for transportation? 

Critics of the Circular Economy, say that the term is being bandied about as a new buzz phrase with the hopes of saving the planet, without people fully understanding what it is.  Also, that one process or product could be examined in isolation and make it more circular, but really what we should be doing is looking at systems as a whole, then how those systems interconnect.  So, without some major power, economic and behavioural shifts, then a true circular economy won’t be achieved.[3]  An argument could be made that some shifts in the right direction from the bottom up could lead to that major shift at the top. 

Whichever way you look at it, the Circular Economy is something that is coming, you may not have heard about it in your workplace yet, but, you will, so it’s good to be aware of it at least.  Fundamentally the Circular Economy is about respecting our resources and recognising finite limits, which surely has to be worth learning more about.  Most excitingly the Circular Economy affords another way of looking at the lifecycle of any product being developed, which opens up lots of opportunities for innovation, and new ways of working.

Useful resources:

https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/

https://www.circulardesignguide.com/

 

[1] Dame Ellen MacArthur Ted Talk   

[2] https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/news/a-line-in-the-sand-ellen-macarthur-foundation-launch-global-commitment-to-eliminate-plastic-pollution-at-the-source

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/14/circular-economy-not-magical-fix-environmental-woes-global-corporations