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Trash to treasure: What is a circular economy?

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Most people in developed countries are concerned about single-use plastics. This year, the European Commission voted to ban a number of single-use plastic items, including cutlery and stirrers. Earlier this summer, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau followed up and said the government would look at the Commission’s policies as a model to develop its own list for banning single-use plastics.

While banning plastics is one way to work towards reducing waste worldwide, there is another way. Consider the circular economy, a notion that would shift how we think about plastics and their connection to the economy.

What is a circular economy?

The notion of a circular economy is relatively straightforward. A linear economy is one we currently rely on and it follows this structure: Take. Use. Dispose of. “In a circular economy, they’re focused on two things: trying to make the most of those resources — so reusing them multiple times over — and trying to minimize the production of materials,” says Allen Langdon, president and CEO of Return-It based in Burnaby, B.C. The key to a circular economy is to keep materials in use at all times and regenerate natural systems rather than depleting them.

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It’s a concept largely used with many materials today—think paper, aluminum or glass. These are all commonly recycled materials, often incorporated into brand-new material. Yet with plastics, it’s often “virgin” plastics used to make packaging and similar items; after one use, those plastics are then disposed of instead of being recycled into new forms for additional uses.

“Part of the reason we’re seeing the plastic pollution problem is because there are a lack of systems globally to collect and responsibly recycle this material.”

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While the notion of reusing things is an old concept, the idea of moving to a circular economy from the linear has been growing over the last decade. “People have looked at the challenges associated with populations continuing to grow and the output and the waste tied to that growth becoming more and more of a recognizable problem,” says Langdon. “People are wondering how to reuse these resources rather than just using them once and disposing of them.”

The benefits of such an economy are clear. “Not only does it have benefits in terms of minimizing resources and minimizing waste, but it also improves the performance on a range of environmental metrics,” says Langdon. “In many cases it lowers the energy footprint and the water use as well as lowering the use or output of toxic materials.”

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The connection to plastics

Heading up a company whose mandate is to develop and manage systems to recover used beverage containers and ensure they’re properly recycled and used in other materials later, Langdon knows the connection between plastics and the circular economy very well.  “The two are intertwined,” he says. “Part of the reason we’re seeing the plastic pollution problem is because there are a lack of systems globally to collect and responsibly recycle this material.”

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The issue is, of course, a global one. “If you look at reports from groups such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (a UK-based charity working to accelerate the movement towards a circular economy), they’ll zero in on areas of the world like Asia where about 80 percent of the problem with plastic pollution is originating,” he says. “The challenge as a circular economy and plastics is: how can we create a model where that plastic has more inherent value?”

Thankfully corporations are paying attention. Companies such as Return-It have been recycling plastics for 25 years and have seen those plastics used in things such as textiles. And Langdon says he’s seeing more corporate commitments as well. “A number of the brand owners that are a part of the Return-It system are setting some pretty aggressive targets for recycled content—either 25 percent by 2025 or 50 percent by 2030,” he says. “We’ll probably see the value of recycled PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) continue to rise. But I also think it’s good we’re seeing more of that material end up in new packaging and displacing the use of virgin plastic in those bottles. We think we’re on the cusp of seeing real transformation in that area.”

What Canadians can do

But what does this mean to the everyday consumer?  “For consumers, there’s probably low information and low interest in the circular economy right now. It’s tough for consumers to wrap their heads around [it],” says Langdon. “So when we talk to consumers, we focus on the fact that our plastic bottles are recycled here and that plastic is coming back as recycled plastic in new bottles.”

Consumers also have a role to play in the circular economy by recycling, choosing the products they buy and how they’re packaged. “Consumers can do what they’re doing right now, which is continue to recycle their containers at a very high rate. By doing that, we can do what we’re doing,” says Langdon. “Their recycling is not going to waste because those bottles and containers are contributing to the new forms of the economy. We’re seeing that material come back and hopefully lower the environmental footprint of that package right from the beginning.”

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Want to know more about the circular economy and how it’s related to beverage packaging and recycling? Return-It has a number of environmental stewardship initiatives including a commitment to recycling 75% of the plastic beverage containers sold into BC by 2022. Find out more about its initiatives and involvement with the circular economy here.