The Circular Economy of Plastics: Where We Are and Where We Can Go

The Circular Economy of Plastics: Where We Are and Where We Can Go

Nelson Beuter Júnior (Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos, Brazil) and Kadígia Faccin (Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos, Brazil)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9885-5.ch013

Abstract

Plastic is an indispensable material for modern society. However, plastic waste is at the center of the current debate due to its presence and persistence in aquatic ecosystems. The literature recognizes that this problem is mainly due to the traditional linear economic model. The circular economy is a model based on the practices of reduction, reuse, recovery, and recycling of materials and energy. Circular economy solutions for plastic could hold the key to its present and future sustainability. Investigating the studies already done about plastic in the context of a circular economy is fundamental to understanding where we are and where we can go.
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Introduction

Plastics are valuable materials that cover a wide range of applications in everyday life and can be found everywhere, from homes to industry. In the last 50 years, plastics production has increased 20 times. In 2014, the production was 311 million tons. It is estimated 600 million tons by 2035 and 1200 million tons by 2050 (Milios et al., 2018). Plastic recycling is relevant not only for the need to close material loops to maintain our natural resources. But also for the alarming observations of plastic scrap being scattered in oceans and lakes due to land and sea activities (Dahlbo et al., 2018).

Circular economy models are emerging as a new paradigm for sustainable business. Growing demand and competition for limited resources are leading to price volatility, resulting in environmental degradation and threatening countries' competitiveness (Di Maio, Rem, 2015). Linear economy models, prevalent today, are driven by the “cradle-to-grave” philosophy. Linear orientation implies a “single-use” lifestyle, motivated by a “take-make-dispose” approach to resource consumption (Goyal et al., 2018; MacArthur, 2015). Circular economics emerges as a counterpoint to traditional linear models because it is an approach to economic growth aligned with sustainable development (Korhonen et al., 2018).

The alarming observations of plastic scrap scattered in oceans and lakes due to human activities, arouse societal reflection and, mobilize attention and resources for the development of solutions. Plastics recycling is still at a low level. In 2012, the annual volume of plastic waste traded globally was around 15 million tons, less than 5% of virgin plastic production (Velis, 2017). Globally, only 14% of plastic packaging was recycled, and even less was retained for subsequent use due to losses in sorting and reprocessing (MacArthur, 2015).

Global plastics production continuously increasing. In 50 years, plastics production increased from 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 million tons in 2014 (MacArthur, 2015). The sector that uses plastics most is the packaging industry, with a 39.9% share in Europe in 2015, followed by construction, with a 19.7% share in Europe in 2015. Most plastic packaging is discarded after a relatively short shelf life, while other products, such as those used in construction, have a longer shelf life. They account for 63% of the total of 25.2 million tonnes of European post-consumer plastic waste (Hestin et al., 2015). Plastic packaging has a variety of applications, from food and beverage packaging to toys and electronics. The primary function of a package is to protect the product. Thus, different types of products require different packaging properties, which results in a significant loss of resources.

Several questions arise: Is “plastic” the real problem? Or are the consumption practices of modern society wrong? Would it be possible to live in today's society without using anything plastic at all? Does it make sense to keep using plastic for all kinds of applications we use it today? Why don't we migrate to biodegradable materials? If plastic continues to exist, how can we best use it? Is the responsibility for the plastic which produces or uses? Or both? How can governments contribute to solving today's problems?

This chapter is not meant to answer all these questions, nor does it exhaust the subject. Given the current context, understanding what has already been built over time and contributing to the solution is crucial to know where we need to go. Thus, this chapter proposes as research questions: What we know about the circular economy of plastics? What opportunities for future studies emerge from this field? The main contribution of this paper is to present the current field of research, proposing a framework with main thematic clusters related to circular economy of plastics and identify these opportunities through a bibliometric search from the Web of Science database. Article summaries, book chapters, and proceeding papers have undergone content analysis to identify relevant topics. These topics were categorized into thematic groupings, where their level of relevance was determined by descriptive statistics. Finally, a framework summarizing the results was proposed. The next session provides a brief contextualization of circular economy.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Circular Economy: An economic system in which the materials are inserted in a cyclic flow, enabling their maximum utilization, reducing the extraction of raw materials from nature (mainly non-renewable), and other environmental impacts.

Chemical Recycling: Technologies that use physicochemical processes to transform waste into raw materials for the production of new materials.

Waste to Energy Technologies: Use waste as primary fuels, or turn it into specialized fuels with broader applications and energy efficiency.

Waste Management: Acts associated with the correct disposal of waste generated in industrial and urban environments.

Mechanical Recycling: Technologies that use physical processes to transform waste into raw materials for the production of new materials.

Composites: Materials whose composition has plastics mixed with non-plastic materials.

Waste to Feedstock Technologies: Break the polymer chains by chemical reactions, to obtain essential molecules that can be used of raw material for the production of new plastics.

Plastic: Polymeric materials produced from mostly renewable and non-renewable raw materials, which have physicochemical properties that allow their use in a wide range of applications in modern society.

Bioplastic: Biobased materials produced from natural polymers derived from starch, cellulose, vegetable oil, and biomass.

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