Oxford study develop roadmap for advancing plastic circular economy


(Photo: Freepik)

Researchers from the Oxford Martin Program on the Future of Plastics, University of Oxford, have introduced a blueprint to drive a plastic circular economy. Steering the global plastics industry towards a circular plastics economy will be essential for achieving a net zero carbon footprint.

The findings, published in the journal Natureoffer a comprehensive strategy that challenges prevailing technical, economic, and policy paradigms driving the current plastic economy.

The current trajectory of the global plastics system is alarming, with annual carbon dioxide equivalent emissions surpassing one gigatons. That figure rivals the combined emissions of Europe’s largest economies – the UK, Germany, and France.

Experts warn that without intervention, these emissions could rise to 4 to 5 gigatons per annum, worsening environmental degradation and climate change concerns. Compounding the issue is the landscape of plastic recycling, with only 9% of the world’s plastic waste being recycled in 2019.

The researchers advocate for a paradigm shift, outlining four key targets essential for shifting the plastics industry to a sustainable and net zero model:

  1. Reduction in demand for plastics: Proposing a 50% reduction in future plastics demand by substituting and eliminating excessive plastic use.
  2. Switching to renewable sources: Advocating for a shift in plastic manufacturing processes to use renewable raw materials like waste biomass and CO2, thereby reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
  3. Optimized recycling: Setting a goal of 95% recycling for recoverable plastics, significantly enhancing current recycling rates.
  4. Integration with renewable energy: Calling for the integration of plastic manufacturing and recycling with renewables while minimizing other negative environmental impacts.

Cameron Hepburn, study co-author and Battcock Professor of Environmental Economics at Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, said: “The problem is that plastics, while contributing hugely to global pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, are extraordinarily useful.”

“Research finds that creating a circular economy for plastics to reduce negative impacts is possible, but only if we can reduce future demand by half, change to renewable plastics that aren’t made from fossil fuels, recycle 95% of what’s left, and minimize environmental impacts at every step of the process. The challenge is huge, but we present a roadmap to transform the whole system, including through the smart design of plastics, economic and legal interventions, and a shift away from overconsumption,” he said.

(Photo: iStock)

The authors emphasize the importance of coordinated action across all four target areas to mitigate climate impacts and align with UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The proposed principles priorities optimal production methods, resource utilization, performance delivery, waste management, and environmental impact reduction to develop a plastic circular economy.

Charlotte Williams, Chemistry professor at the University of Oxford and lead author, said: “We need plastics and polymers, including for future low emission technologies like electric vehicles and wind turbines, as well as for many essential everyday materials.”

“The current global plastics system is completely unsustainable, we need to be implementing these series of very bold measures at scale, and fast. This is a solvable problem, but it needs coherent and combined action, especially from chemical manufacturers,” she said.

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