FROM PLASTIC WASTE TO CIRCULAR ECONOMY
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FROM PLASTIC WASTE TO CIRCULAR ECONOMY

(China Productivity Center  Smart Agriculture Promotion Department)

In recent years, the problems of environmental garbage and marine debris keep breaking out one after another. According to a report by Agence France-Presse, the global annual output of plastic exceeds 300 million tons, and at least 5 trillion plastic fragments are floating in the sea. This is an era when plastic is flooding our lives, but how did plastic come into being? How has it evolved over the past century?

The earliest plastic originated in the United States in the 19th century. It was a resin synthesized from natural materials such as nitrocellulose and camphor, commonly known as Celluloid Nitrate. Developed by John Wesley Hyatt, it is the earliest thermoplastic resin invented in history and the first semi-synthetic plastic successfully commercialized. Afterwards, plastics went through subsequent stages of improvement. The modern plastic came from a German chemist, Hermann Staudinger. He proposed in 1920 that macromolecules are polymers connected by small molecules through chemical bonds. Based on the concept of polymer structures and fine-tuning of the performance, plastics have developed at an astonishing speed in just a few decades. Along with the urbanization and modernization driven by the industrial revolution, plastic products have become an indispensable part of the world in the 21st century.

In pursuit of the convenience and speed of life, human beings have produced many disposable plastic products in large quantities. These different types of plastic products require different amount of time to decompose in the natural environment. For example, the most commonly used PE plastic bags and cling film take about 10 to 12 years to decompose. Nylon cloth and plastic bottles take 30-50 years, and PVC, which is used to replace rubber in many production applications, is non-degradable. The glamorous appearance of the packaging also leads to many unexpected environmental and food safety concerns. Although the Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc., USA proposed in 1988 a labeling system that uses plastic types for classification (Resin Identification Code), the progress of plastic recycling was not as smooth as expected. Since plastic recycling cannot proceed with automatic classification, the process requires a lot of manpower. Besides, many plastic products are not made of only one single material. The cost of dismantling these components may be higher than the value of the recycled plastic itself. The effectiveness of plastic recycling remains poor. Plastic waste that has not been properly sorted and treated is usually buried or incinerated and has resulted in serious pollution to the ocean and the air. There is even a "garbage belt" that is 44 times the size of Taiwan floating in the Pacific Ocean. The plastic drifting on the sea is broken down into tiny plastic particles by wind and sun. And these plastic particles, like in chowder, are often absorbed by marine creatures and accumulate in the bodies and turn into harmful substances over the years, thereby harming the organisms.

According to the survey and analysis, 80% of the plastic waste in the ocean comes from land-based activities and 20% comes from marine activities. Therefore, to solve the problem of plastic waste, it is necessary to make changes from the onset by redesigning the plastic value chain. The concept of "circular economy" was put forward in 1989 by two British environmental economists, David W. Pearce and R. Kerry Turner. They pointed out the linear mode of production and consumption of human beings adopted by people after the industrial revolution was that of mining--manufacturing--use--abandonment. This is an economic model that regards the nature as a huge dumping site. On the other hand, circular economy is a feedback economic development model based on the concept of continuous recycling of materials. By slowing down, enclosing, and reducing the cycling of material and energy, the input, discard, and emission of resources can all be reduced to the minimum. In circular economy, nothing is wasted but only misplaced. It includes tangible and intangible products, ideas, models and behaviors, equipment and services. To transform from a linear mode to a circular economy, the Circular Taiwan Network, in the "Circular Economy: A Model to Transform Marine Debris into Resources" Booklet proposes three modes of strategic thinking, with the hope to change the product value chain and drive innovative practice and solutions:

(1)   Service-oriented Products: Unlike the traditional commercial mode in which the producers sell and customers buy the products, this new idea is that the producers provide services, and customers use it instead of possessing ownership, and the price is determined in terms of amount of usage or service performance. In this business model, profit making and resource consumption no longer equate, and the producers bear the responsibility of the whole life cycle of the products.

(2)   High-value circulation of resources: With zero waste and zero emission as the ultimate goal, the value of each product and resource is retained in the production process to maximize the benefits and minimize the impact to the environment.

(3)   Systematic cooperation: Through integration of the material flow, knowledge flow and cash flow, industrial and cross-industry cooperation is achieved through systematic planning.

Through multi-R thinking (rethink, redesign, reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover resources), environmental protection and economic development are not necessarily of a counter-balance relationship. With higher environmental awareness and circular economy, many alternative products and business opportunities have been developed. While we are pursuing a higher quality of life, we may be able to think more about better ways and choices. The most important reforms often start from the smallest point. It is believed that through changes in production patterns and consumption choices, a harmony between human life and the environment sustainability can be achieved.