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What Plastics Consumption in a Circular Economy Looks Like

Image: TSUNG-LIN WU/Adobe Stock symbol of circular green economy
Conor Carlin, Vice President, Sustainability, at the Society of Plastics Engineers, will deliver a keynote presentation on adapting plastics consumption habits to a circular economy during Virtual Engineering Week. In this interview, he explains what needs to be done and by whom.

Change is rarely easy, but sometimes it’s necessary. Adapting plastics consumption habits to the boundaries of a circular economy falls under that category, according to Conor Carlin, Vice President, Sustainability, at the Society of Plastics Engineers. He is one of the featured speakers scheduled to present a keynote during Virtual Engineering Week that runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4.

Conor Carlin, Vice President, Sustainability, Society of Plastics Engineers
Conor Carlin, Vice President, Sustainability, Society of Plastics Engineers.

Several sessions on day four — Dec. 3 — of Virtual Engineering Week revolve around plastics technology and, fittingly, Carlin will present the keynote on that day at 8:15 AM Pacific. He shared some insights in advance of his presentation with PlasticsToday recently. The full schedule of the event, which includes more than 100 sessions on topics ranging from 3D printing and sustainability to leading-edge developments in packaging and medical technology, is available at the Virtual Engineering Week website. The free event is organized by Informa Markets Engineering, which also produces PlasticsToday.

Your keynote addresses making appropriate decisions about plastics consumption in a circular economy. Can you flesh that out for us? Who needs to be involved in that decision-making process?

Carlin: The key word is decision. Actually, to modify that, it should be active decision. In order to align plastics consumption with circular economy principles, we have to actively think through the consequences of decisions made at different parts of the value chain. One example that comes to mind quickly is from the UK. The Tesco supermarket chain created a traffic light system to categorize different materials used in packaging in their stores. The red category — problematic materials — included PVC, PLA, and PS. Why? Because despite life-cycle analysis (LCA) benefits for PLA, for example, it simply cannot be composted or recycled in the current infrastructure. In other words, the LCA profile of a material is not enough to justify its use if it cannot be managed at end-of-life. This should, however, serve as a signal and driver to both private and public entities to invest in the correct infrastructure. 

Designing for recyclability must be part of this process, correct?

Carlin: Design decisions cannot be made in a vacuum, but in many cases they are. They also tend to follow the path of least resistance. Consumers say one thing and do another: McKinsey recently published a report showing that environmental considerations for packaging rank below price, quality, brand, and convenience. We tend to talk a lot about packaging because it’s so visible and everyone interacts with it, but there are other arenas where we have seen some success with managing polymer-based materials from cradle to grave. Carpets, mattresses, and automotive components are a few areas where, though not perfect, industry and governments have created programs designed to manage end-of-life issues. Done correctly, these programs can create jobs and profits, usually in local circles.

Who should bear responsibility: The producer? The consumer? Both?

Carlin: In terms of responsibility, everyone has to chip in, from the producers to the consumers. I believe we have to stop looking at responsibility as zero-sum. Producers will state that they will pass costs on to consumers who will then, presumably, buy less of the product. But we all have to pay more to fund the right infrastructure and, perhaps more importantly, to ensure that market signals are aligned with environmental benefits. Natural capital is not infinite, and there are planetary carrying costs to our decisions.

"Sooner or later, the planetary carrying costs will come due"

Apart from Tesco, are there other programs here or abroad that you can point to as examples to follow?

Carlin: There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but adapting models to local needs appears to get the most  buy-in from members of the supply chain, including communities and citizens. This has its challenges, however, when it comes to finding legislative solutions, because in the United States, at least, getting 50 states to agree on anything is difficult. Even the resin identification code system hasn’t been universally adopted — only 39 states have enacted legislation.

Incentives can be either carrots or sticks. California recently enacted AB 793, which establishes minimum recycled content requirements for plastic beverage containers. The EU is about to introduce a program whereby companies will be charged €0.80/kg on non-recycled plastics. In the UK, starting in 2022, firms will be charged £0.20/kg on plastic packaging that does not contain at least 30% recycled content. Japan has had similar incentive programs in place for years, leading to an increase in flexible packaging there. When the carrots don’t work, the sticks will come out. Necessity is the mother of invention.

A session on circularity in medical plastics immediately follows your keynote on Dec. 3. In your opinion, is the circular economy concept viable when it comes to medical plastics?

Carlin: This is a thorny area. Medical plastics are not the same as packaging plastics, even though in some cases they perform the same function — protecting contents, for example. Infection and biohazard risk in hospitals are major concerns that are mitigated greatly by plastics. Separating infected materials from non-infected materials is the first step.

Groups like the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council have created some blueprints to help hospitals address end-of-life options for PPE and other polymer-based materials. Like other areas, however, there has to be enough material collected and available for a recycler to make money. Triumvirate Environmental in Somerville, MA, spun off a plastic lumber company after it reached a critical volume threshold. This proves that it can be done.

It should also be pointed out, however, when talking about environmental impact, that plastics represent only one-quarter of an average hospital’s total waste. Energy usage is the single biggest contributor to emissions in this sector.

What do you hope attendees to your keynote presentation come away with?

Carlin: I would like people to actively keep in mind the true definition of sustainability — using resources today such that we don’t compromise the ability of future generations to use the same resources. Something either is or is not sustainable; it cannot be more or less sustainable than something else. We can, however, make choices that have a greater or lesser impact on the environment. Sooner or later, the planetary carrying costs will come due. In practical terms, this means we have to start paying more for convenience — all of us, from producers to consumers. There is no free lunch.

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