Towards a Roadmap for a Circular Plastics Economy

Among the greatest boons that science has bestowed upon humanity, it would be difficult to deny one of the highest ranks to the polymeric materials we call plastics. In every sphere of human activity – from the individual household to the industrial factory, from health and hygiene to materials and mobility, from the personal to the planetary – plastics have, within a hundred years, truly transformed our civilisation. Today, it is impossible to think of any human endeavour that does not depend integrally and beneficially on one type of plastic or another.

Unfortunately, within those same few decades, plastics have also followed several other “miracle” solutions such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), leaded gasoline, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in creating “collateral” damages that were not intended, yet in various and unexpected ways rapidly negated many of the benefits. In the case of plastics, this was a consequence of the very stability and longevity of these substances that made them so valuable, but which also led to the accumulation of vast mountains, rivers, and oceans of intractable wastes, gradually toxifying local natural or urban resources. These miracle materials, which have enabled so many to have so much benefit from everyday conveniences to life-saving products, are now destroying the well-being of our communities and the very life of our ecosystems. The magnitude and pervasiveness of these wastes are now so great that they have overtaken many of the highest priorities of national and global agendas.

The arteries of our world’s lifeblood – our oceans, seas, and rivers – from the mightiest Ganges, Murray, and Danube to the smallest local streams – are now clogged with the rapid build-up of the pernicious cholesterol of our civilisation, waste plastics. A safer future depends on how well we limit our use of plastics, and indeed all materials, to only those applications that satisfy the criterion of full resource circularity. In the meantime, the first step is to clean up the mess we have already created.

Every day, we see the conflict between different sets of otherwise desirable social objectives where policies designed to solve immediate problems end up creating bigger problems later. Free electricity for farmers leading to over-irrigation and unnecessary contamination of aquifers; building of ill-planned overpasses leading to even greater traffic congestion; promotion of biofuels leading to competition with food crops, irrigation water and forests – these are all common examples of counterintuitive and countervailing impacts of well-intentioned but narrowly conceived decisions.

Could any of these unintended outcomes have been avoided? Given the complexity of human and social systems and the inadequate state of scientific knowledge, perhaps not all. However, it is becoming clear that we need better tools for ‘foresight’ in our technology choices to minimise such mistakes in the future. Such tools are in their infancy but becoming more available because of academic research and some corporate application.

One of our biggest challenges in changing the mindset is that, despite received wisdom, we continue to think of implementing end-of-pipe solutions rather than mitigating causal factors. These can only be temporary measures.

Systems thinking provides policymakers with a framework and a toolkit to understand seemingly disconnected effects of actions; and why, for example, solutions in the short term (such as focusing only on cash crops) exacerbate in later years the very problems (farmers’ financial security) they were designed to solve. We urgently need to strengthen and build the skills of our policymakers, planners, and programme implementation personnel. Supply chains and many environmental impacts are global, and countries need to collaborate to solve problems and create opportunities for businesses and communities.

In 2020, India and Australia agreed on a comprehensive strategic partnership. In this context, the Australian government has funded a research and industry collaboration between the two countries to reduce plastics waste.

The India-Australia Industry and Research Collaboration for Reducing Plastic Waste is a unique collaboration of three Indian and three Australian research organisations to deal with both the present (i.e., with waste-minimisation activities on the ground) and the future (i.e., with innovation of technologies and institutions in the policy arena). Even at this stage, it has become clear that we need urgently to build better technology, economic, legal, policy, and behavioural responses to:

  • create short-term economically attractive solutions for resource recovery addressing the current problem of plastics waste;

  • invest in the medium- and long-term opportunities to design novel materials, products, and processes for delivering the services provided by current materials; and

  • to align the development, commercialisation, and implementation of technologies with novel business models and institutional and governance arrangements to facilitate a transition from the current linear model of polymer use to a circular economy of plastics.

Doing so will allow for deep synergies that can be obtained among these components, to minimise trade-offs and reinforce sustainability. It enables a systems view to promote resource and energy efficiencies, healthy local economies, and equitable and fulfilled societies over the long term.

To achieve this requires a paradigm shift in mental maps of our development planners and implementers, which needs systems thinking skills systems modelling ability.

The Indo-Australian project has established the magnitude of the problem, researched technologies, and explored policy options, and is now working with the government, business, and community participants to develop a roadmap for a circular plastics economy in India. This approach can shape a future where lives and faith go hand in hand, and where livelihoods based on scientific progress do not have to destroy our life support systems.

Dr Ashok Khosla1

Dr Heinz Schandl2

1Development Alternatives, Delhi, India
2Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia

The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Development Alternatives. 

This blog first appeared as an editorial in Development Alternatives Newsletter June, 2022

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