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The circular economy: Answering the plastic problem with Innovation

Plastic pollution has emerged as one of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time, threatening ecosystems, marine life, and human health. In 2021 alone, an estimated 390.7 million tons of plastic have been produced, and production is expected to triple by 2050. According to the United Nations, more than eight million tons of plastic end up in our oceans. every year, they are causing severe damage to the environment, wildlife, and people. There are five 'plastic islands' floating around the world's oceans. To compare the size of these islands, the largest and most famous of them is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is said to have an area of 1.6 million square kilometers; a landfill in our ocean is almost 4.5 times the size of Germany. A paradigm shift is needed, and innovation is key. The consumption model of the traditional linear economy is characterized by the extraction of resources, the production of products from those resources, and then the disposal of those products after use; a 'take-to-waste' model. An innovative way to tackle the plastic problem is to reimagine our approach to resource consumption and waste management through a circular economy model.

A circular economy aims to eliminate financial incentives that deplete the Earth's resources and degrade the environment. Unlike the traditional linear model, this regenerative system emphasizes the continuous use, reuse, and recycling of materials. By prioritizing durability, repairability, and recycling-friendly designs, the circular economy minimizes waste generation and creates a closed system in which resources are rotated. permanently transferred back to the production process. The circular economy requires innovation and can prove to be a powerful solution for reducing plastic use and creating a more sustainable and resource-efficient society. In addition, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “By 2040, the circular economy has the potential to:

  • Reduce the annual volume of plastics entering our oceans by 80%

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25%

  • Generate savings of USD 200 bn per year

  • Create 700,000 net additional jobs.

Reinventing plastic production and Design in a circular economy

At the heart of the circular economy is the design concept of eliminating waste and pollution from the outset. Many disposable plastic products that we use every day take a long time to decompose. For example, plastic bottles are commonly used but are estimated to take 450 years to decompose, and coffee pods and toothbrushes are said to take 500 years. By applying innovative design principles, such as eco-design and biomimetics, plastics can be developed with durability, recyclability, and reusability in mind. This approach allows products to retain value and utility throughout their lifecycle, reducing the need for single-use plastics and promoting material flow. The process aims to break down plastic into molecules that are chemically recyclable or biodegradable, which can then contribute back to the circular economy and reduce plastic pollution through the manufacturing process. more innovative and sustainable production.

Intropic Materials, một công ty có trụ sở tại Hoa Kỳ, đã tạo ra một giải pháp tiềm năng cho việc thiếu khả năng phân hủy sinh học của nhựa bằng cách nhúng các enzym vào nhựa để hỗ trợ và tăng tốc độ phân hủy tự nhiên
Intropic Materials, a US-based company, has created a potential solution to plastic's lack of biodegradability by embedding enzymes in the plastic to aid and speed up its natural breakdown.

Apeel, another US-based company, has developed an innovative solution to replace disposable plastic food wraps to keep fruits and vegetables fresh without sacrificing freshness. longevity of the product. By creating an edible, plant-based coating that mimics conventional shrink plastic wrap by slowing deterioration due to dehydration and oxidation, the product has the potential to change. way to pack fruits and vegetables in an innovative and sustainable way.

Apeel, một công ty khác có trụ sở tại Hoa Kỳ, đã phát triển một giải pháp sáng tạo để thay thế các loại màng bọc thực phẩm bằng nhựa dùng một lần nhằm giữ cho trái cây và rau củ tươi mà không làm giảm độ tươi lâu của sản phẩm
Apeel, another US-based company, has developed an innovative solution to replace disposable plastic food wraps to keep fruits and vegetables fresh without sacrificing freshness. long of the product

A new era in recycling

Recycling has become a familiar concept for plastic waste. However, while recycling is very important, one report concluded that only 9% of all plastic waste ever generated was recycled. To achieve a circular economy for plastics, a robust and efficient recycling infrastructure is crucial - this involves investing in advanced sorting technologies, improving collection processes and segregation as well as promoting cooperation among stakeholders in waste management. Through efficient recycling, plastic waste can be converted into valuable resources, such as energy, that can be applied elsewhere.

Hydrogen Utopia, a UK-based startup, has created a method to turn non-recyclable plastic waste into usable hydrogen and syngas (syngas) products, essentially providing alternative energy sources from unusable waste. This not only creates a more eco-friendly approach to gas extraction but also uses plastic waste as a resource. Although hydrogen gas is not currently in common use as a fuel, the opportunities it presents for the energy future are limitless and it has great potential for use in the years to come.

Hệ thống xử lýrác thải nhựa không thể tái chế thành các sản phẩm hydro và khí tổng hợp có thể sử dụng được của Hydrogen Utopia
Hydrogen Utopia's system for processing non-recyclable plastic waste into usable hydrogen and syngas products

Correct the mistake

While the introduction of a circular economy could significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste generated worldwide, much remains to be done with the waste already generated. As mentioned before, some plastic products can have a lifespan of 500 years before they break down (which harms the environment itself), so it is important for mankind to clean up after themselves.

Ocean Cleanup was founded by 18-year-old Dutch inventor Boyan Slat and is a leading nonprofit in innovative ocean cleaning technology. Their current cleanup system, dubbed 'System 002' (now transitioning to System 03), uses a long net that is stretched between two slow-moving boats (so as not to harm animals). wild) through garbage 'hot spots' in the ocean – especially around the previously mentioned Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Innovative computational modeling allows organizations to predict where hotspots will form and then deploy their systems in those areas. The net has a 'storage area' in the middle where plastic waste is dumped into a hopper, collected and then transferred to containers on the boat. Once the containers have been filled, the plastic is sent back to the mainland for recycling. Ocean Cleanup plans to create durable products from collected waste, turning harmful pollution into valuable resources that feedback to the economy. All proceeds will continue to clean the oceans and they aim to continue until our oceans are clean.

Ocean Cleanup được thành lập bởi nhà phát minh người Hà Lan Boyan Slat năm 18 tuổi và là một tổ chức phi lợi nhuận hàng đầu về công nghệ làm sạch đại dương sáng tạo
Ocean Cleanup was founded by 18-year-old Dutch inventor Boyan Slat and is a leading nonprofit in innovative ocean cleaning technology.

Ocean Cleanup has also created a group of 'Intercept' technology solutions focused on cleaning rivers around the world. The Interceptor Original is a 100% solar-powered, automated plastic extractor that is strategically located on the river to collect all passing waste for recycling. A barrier transfers river waste onto a conveyor belt to pull debris out of the water and onto an automated shuttle that distributes waste evenly across several bins using sensor data. When the bins are full, the Interceptor will notify local operators via text message, who will then come to remove the waste for recycling. These amazing, creative solutions are futuristic, straight from science fiction. However, they persist to this day and are vital to both the circular economy and the health of our planet.

A new path for the circular economy

Plastic waste has infiltrated every corner of our planet, and while the damage is mounting, it's not too late. The circular economy enables businesses and people around the world to apply their critical thinking abilities and insights to innovate toward value-added change. By embracing the ideas of a circular economy, we can rewrite the story and pave the way toward a more resource-efficient and resilient society, and thus a sustainable future. more stable. The circular economy is not just a concept; it's an effective solution that offers hope for a world where plastics are managed responsibly, waste is reduced and the environment thrives. With many innovations currently underway and exciting prospects generated by the Global Plastics Innovation Network, the future looks a little less plastic and a little more sustainable.

Author: Paul Herring - Global Chief Innovation Officer




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