A solution to plastic pollution: circular economy

A solution to plastic pollution: circular economy

The dire state of the world's oceans can no longer be ignored. Discarded plastic waste -- particularly single-use plastic -- is putting marine life at risk.

It's not only big chunks of plastic and bags that pose a danger: plastic exposed to salt water and ultraviolet solar rays can fragment into minuscule microplastics that are easily ingested by birds, fish and simple marine life forms, eventually leaching chemicals into the food chain.

Businesses, consumers and investors are starting to pay attention -- and it's about time. Without a practical and expedient approach for tackling discarded plastic, waste management systems will become overwhelmed.

Communities dependent on industries such as fishing and tourism, in particular low- and middle-income countries, could experience irreparable economic harm, not to mention health, safety and environmental damage.

That's why solutions to support a circular economy are growing in importance. Getting rid of plastic waste requires more than landfills. It requires rethinking how we recycle, reuse and redesign products -- and manage the materials that go into making those products -- to cut down on waste in a way that also allows industry to thrive economically and boost opportunities.

Recently there has been some good news on that front. Within the next five years, Thailand-based Indorama Ventures, the biggest global producer of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) -- the polymer used to make 30% of all plastic bottles and products ranging from clothing to carpets to automotive products -- has committed to quadruple its PET recycling capacity and eliminate 750,000 tonnes of plastic annually from landfills and open dumps that pollute rivers and oceans.

The Indorama initiative was supported with a novel US$300-million "blue loan" from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the development finance arm of the World Bank. These loans were created to incentivise companies to embrace a circular economy approach for combatting marine pollution. It is part of the accelerating global effort to eliminate waste and conserve resources while addressing the health, safety and financial well-being of vulnerable communities.

There is a compelling business argument for doing just that. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which promotes a circular economy, 95% of plastic packaging, valued at between $80 billion to $120 billion a year, is lost to the economy after a short first use.

The primary reason companies don't recycle, experts say, is that collecting and sorting all that discarded PET is a labour-intensive endeavour and not a very lucrative business. On balance, most PET manufacturers still find it cheaper to manufacture virgin PET than to reuse and reprocess discarded material.

IFC envisions its blue loans, the first of which was extended to Indorama, as helping to change that mindset. By supporting the development of a functional and profitable reusability infrastructure, we are hoping to encourage more companies to embrace circularity.

The result will be fewer natural resources used and less greenhouse gases emitted to produce new PET, and less waste leaking out of landfills into streams, rivers and oceans.

The partnership with Indorama will help the company expand its existing network of recycling facilities into Brazil, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand -- countries that are particularly vulnerable to ocean pollution because of their large coastal populations and their reliance on fishing and tourism.

To put Indorama's efforts into context, it will recycle 50 billion PET bottles alone every year, conserving 3 million barrels of crude oil that would have gone into making new bottles and eliminating 1.65 million tonnes of carbon pollution.

The loan will also help the company implement resource-efficient measures while spurring investment in the recycling industry, creating employment for local communities and hopefully embedding the ethos of sustainability into the PET industry.

"To make progress on the problem of ocean plastics we need a strategy for persistence a way to work on the problem long enough to make a difference," says Reid Lifset, a research scientist with the Yale University School of the Environment.

"If IFC loans turn into long-term commitments by Indorama and other companies to increase the capture and recycling of PET, this will be a great step forward for the world's oceans."

By helping a global plastic resin producer up its recycling game, IFC is tackling head-on the issue of ocean pollution and is accelerating the circular economy business model away from "take-make-and-waste" into a more sustainable future.

There is more to be done, and we are actively strategising -- and investing -- to promote sustainable development to improve lives and protect the environment.

Rana Karadsheh-Haddad is the IFC regional industry director for manufacturing, agribusiness and services in Asia and Pacific.

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