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The circular economy: A beginner’s guide for industrial plastics buyers

clock 4 minutes | 29 Nov 2021

The circular economy could be the key to building a more sustainable society, one based on renewable and recyclable resources. But what does such an economy look like? How does it relate to the way plastics are used? What steps can manufacturers take to make the transition? Here’s what you need to know…

What is the circular economy?

Climate change, biodiversity loss and rising pollution have prompted a rethink of consumption and production habits. Many are calling for the traditional straight-line economy to be replaced with a closed loop system. One in which the products of today become the raw materials of tomorrow.

This is known as a ‘circular economy’ and it’s one of the rare times when going around in circles is a good thing.

There are different views as to how a circular economy will work, but all are based around three guiding principles:

  1. Eliminating waste and pollution
  2. Keeping products and materials in use, rather than discarding them
  3. Regenerating natural systems

An economy built on these values provides the tools to tackle climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss. Yet, the potential benefits go even further.

For example, Accenture forecast that switching to a circular economy could deliver as much as US$4.5 trillion of economic growth and the International Labour Orgnisatione expects it to create 6 million extra jobs by 2030. It would also help to protect human health from harmful waste.

In short, circularity provides the means “to grow prosperity, jobs, and resilience while cutting greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and pollution,” according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

A yacht, a world record and a mission

In 2005, Dame Ellen MacArthur became the fastest person to sail around the globe solo. It was during her 10-week voyage that Dame Ellen became aware of the finite resources which enable our world to work.

A new understanding of how the decisions made today affect what’s left for tomorrow led her to establish the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which works to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.

Over the past decade-plus, the foundation has done much to help put the subject on the agenda of decision makers around the world. Which explains why your internet searches for ‘circular economy’ return so many references to Ellen MacArthur.

Plastics and the circular economy

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has launched a number of initiatives. One such ‘Action Area’ is the New Plastics Economy which puts forward a vision for ‘a circular economy of plastic’, one in which plastic never becomes waste.

There are a number of ways that vision could become a reality. For example, making use of new material innovations such as plastics made from natural substances.

These ‘bioplastics’ represent a small share of the total volume of plastics produced today, between 1% and 3%. However, soaring interest from consumers and businesses alike could see this figure reach 40% by 2030 says Statista.

Find out more on what bioplastics are, how they are made and what they might mean for your business.

Another point raised in the New Plastics Economy is the importance of using recycled content, “both to decouple production from finite feedstocks and to stimulate demand for collection and recycling.”

This starts with society changing how it views plastic, says Helen Jordan, a recycling expert at the British Plastics Federation. “We need to stop thinking of plastic as ‘waste’ but as a renewable resource that needs to be disposed of correctly,” she told The SustainAbility Institute.

According to National Geographic, only 9% of waste has been recycled, with the vast majority, 79%, residing in landfill or the natural environment.

Increasing the use of recycled raw materials is one ways Essentra Components is leading by example and helping customers embrace circularity.

How can manufacturers become circular businesses?

One way to start closing the loop is for designers to consider what will become of products once users are finished with them.

At present, says the EU Science Hub, more than 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined at the design stage.

‘Sustainable design’ is the first step towards becoming circular, according to PwC, influencing decisions for design concepts, raw materials and manufacturing methods.

When designing new products or purchasing components, R&D and purchasing teams must consider three things:

  • Designed with durability in mind in order to create products which last,
  • Designed with modularity in mind so that components can easily be accessed, repaired and replaced as necessary,
  • Designed with sustainable materials in mind to help make recycling and repurposing quick and simple.

Having to change processes and methods that have been in place for years, if not decades, can seem daunting. Fortunately, technology is helping to make the transition easier to manage.

Using the Industrial Internet of Things

One of the challenges circularity presents is the need to accurately track, measure and record where products are, where they’re going and where they’ve come from. The same goes for raw materials and components, as well as where and how a product is disposed of.

The ‘Industrial Internet of Things’ (IIoT) is a connected network where machines, systems, products and humans communicate and share information with each other. This provides visibility across an entire value chain – linking together suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, customers and waste managers.

By combining the ‘big data’ collected via the IIoT and cloud computing with advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, manufacturers have the insights needed to make smarter, more sustainable decisions and optimise every aspect of their operation.

Find out more about the technology and terminology in our guide to Industry 4.0.

Driving down waste, increasing efficiencies and unlocking potential new revenue streams will be music to many an ear. And with consumers, employees and investors now prioritising sustainable companies, ‘going green’ also makes good business sense.

The World Economic Forum suggests that returning used resources back into production could generate more than US$1 trillion a year in raw material cost savings by 2025.

The pressure to embrace circular business models is also coming via new regulations.

A circular future

Rising environmental awareness has led policymakers to introduce legislation to help prevent further climate change. A number of policies are already in place, with more due to be introduced over the coming years.

The European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan, for example, is one of the main building blocks of achieving the EU’s 2050 net zero target. The plan includes initiatives along the entire life cycle of products, from design and production to consumption and disposal.

With circularity at its centre, the plan has directives aimed at curbing industrial emissions and the use of harmful chemicals and promote the development of sustainable materials and an industry-led reporting framework.

Similar actions are being taken across the world, including in the UK and US, Canada, China, Japan, Australia and South Africa.

(To learn more about the plastics legislation being introduced and how it may impact your business, read our latest article here insert link once live])

Closing the plastics loop

As part of Essentra Components’ journey towards a more sustainable future, it has greatly increased the amount of recycled plastics used in components made across its low-density polyethylene (LDPE) product lines.

Nearly all LDPE products produced at its UK facility are now being manufactured using at least 40% recycled plastics, and sometimes even more, while maintaining the same level of quality, integrity and durability.

To reach the 40% initial threshold, the company has invested in new machinery to mix both virgin plastics resins with post-consumer resin, primarily from recycled drinks bottles.

The initial aim was to reach a ratio of 20:80 but continued research meant it has achieved a ratio of 40:60. It is expected to progress this further to between 50% and 60% in the future.

Furthermore, while the LDPE range is the current focus, the aim is to incorporate more sustainable materials across the product portfolio so that at least 20% of material used is from more sustainable sources by 2025.

Essentra Components is also researching ways in which to make its supply chain more circular, including collecting and recycling products from customers once they reach the end of their lifecycle.

Learn more about sustainability at Essentra Components, including its commitments and reporting.

Circular economy principles

Whether driven by policymakers, investors, consumers or employees, it looks likely that circular principles will become the new ‘business as usual’.

Like with any transition, the key to success lies in understanding what’s happening, asking the right questions of your suppliers and preparing early.

Questions?

Email us at sales@essentracomponents.co.uk or speak to one of our experts for further information on the ideal solution for your application 0345 528 0474.

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