Tackling the ever growing problem of plastic pollution will require the collective effort of everyone in the plastics value chain, from manufacturers of raw materials that go into plastics, to the end consumers and recyclers, says World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Circular Plastics Economy project manager Lorren de Kock.
In highlighting the growing urgency to stem the tide of plastics entering the natural environment, she says more ways need to be developed and implemented to reduce leakages of various forms of pollutants and that, as things stand, principles of a circular economy are good mechanisms to achieve these goals in the short term.
De Kock was one of the panellists presenting during the Planet Shapers online event hosted by the Green Building Council of South Africa on March 25, on the topic of the State of Circularity in the South African Built Environment - Starting the Conversation.
“The WWF acknowledges that, to achieve [a circular economy], the necessary sustainable and regenerative production/consumption [procedures] are required, along with accountability and transparency,” says De Kock.
She explains that the plastics system is complex and plastic itself is also a complex material with lots of polymers being used and wide application in many sectors. “This results in a very complex plastic pollution problem, which leads to large and persistent leakage of unchecked plastic into the environment.”
It is because plastic presents such a complex issue that broad and collective efforts are required to address it, notes De Kock.
She also states that it is a fallacy that simple solutions exist to combat plastic pollution as the problem requires interventions along each stage of the plastics value chain.
Although De Kock points out there was talk of going “plastic free”, the industry knows this is not possible in a modern age and developed society because plastic is a very valuable material, used in multiple sectors.
She also avers that many in the plastics industry talk about replacing certain fossil fuel inputs in the manufacture of plastics, and instead substituting them with biobased materials or going the biodegradable route. However, De Kock says such endeavours typically hold significant risk. “If you look at all the unintended consequences that come out of these changes – these need to be taken into account.”
Further, other "industry chatter" involves simply focusing on recycling of plastics as a way to mitigate plastics ending up in landfills and the natural environment. In this instance, the problem is that many packaging plastics especially, cannot be viably recycled, or there are not viable service providers undertaking this type of recycling, she says.
Therefore, De Kock posits that a viable and achievable solution to addressing the issue is an industry shift to a circular plastics economy that will require a departure by existing stakeholders working in the different sectors and silos, who are “protecting the current linear waste material flow model”.
“A systems view and very deep collaboration across all direct and indirect stakeholders within sectors is required to tackle this challenge of pollution of any material. Something to keep in mind for different sectors is that collaboration is really essential to move forward for systems change,” she says.
As such, De Kock also notes that the WWF is punting an overall circular economy that is founded on the principles of a circular design, innovative reuse and refill schemes (in case of packaging), driving a recycling economy and establishing markets for secondary resources.
“Here we see the fossil-based materials that come in previously being replaced by renewable sources, hopefully locally-produced. We have all goods, especially imported goods, regulated through mandatory extended producer responsibility programmes, as well as standard certification labelling. There needs to be transparency, and check points,” she states.
The plastics industry also needs to “start envisaging these milestones” which will close the gap between the current plastics value chain and what can be achieved in an ideal state, concludes De Kock.