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Why our COVID-recovery plan should focus on transitioning to a circular economy 

Written by MS
14/09/2020 12:00:33

It seems untimely to talk about the COVID-19 recovery process during a moment where cases are on the rise once again in the UK. But as we have seen time and again - across a range of issues in both domestic and international spheres - when you fail to prepare, things inevitably go downhill. 

Now the pandemic, and ensuing lockdown, have put a spanner in the works when it comes to plastic recycling and the move toward a carbon-zero economy. And this has not just been an issue in the UK, but worldwide as economies big and small have seen a rise in the number of single-use plastics in circulation over the past six months. It is understandable. 

To some extent, this rise was and remains to be, unavoidable. The general population is being encouraged to wear face masks; there has been an increase in the sale of other PPE items such as gloves and aprons. On top of all this, more and more of us are turning to online food delivery services, leading to an increase in the production and sale of single-use plastic packaging. 

One seemingly shouldn’t complain of this immediate increase as items such as PPE have been incredibly necessary bits of kit for frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19. Nonetheless, we should always strive to do better and think about how we can tackle these major, global issues in a more effective and environmentally-friendly way. 

Though we all now may be behind on targets to reach the environmental goals of the future, as we make plans to revamp the economy and standard of living after COVID-19, we should do this with a ‘green-frame-of-mind’. That’s why in today’s blog from The Plastic People, we are talking all about circles. 

What is a circular economy? 

Researchers and industry experts have been discussing the benefits of a circular economy for years, and it is a fairly easy concept to grasp. In short, a circular economy focuses on restoration and regeneration. It aims to decouple our economy from its focus on finite resources and work toward creating zero-waste and reusable products. 

Ideas associated with a circular economy are already ingrained into our society. Over recent years, activities such as the up-cycling of furniture have become prominent and champions a similar idea: Making use of what we already have to reduce our overall waste and carbon footprint. It is perhaps most easy to associate a circular economy with the popular maxim ‘waste not, want not’. 

Transitioning to this form of self-sufficient economy is vital for us to reach the UK’s net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target by 2050. But, in addition to this, a circular economy is estimated to actually create more wealth for the country. As a circular economy inspires more productivity, estimates suggest that adopting this form will add an extra £35bn to the UK economy by 2036. 

Moreover, to facilitate such a major shift in the operation of our economy will take time and require changes to be made not just in government but also across our industries. When the majority of people think about climate change, they commonly put the causes down to energy and fuel consumption, but, it is thought that this only makes up 55% of global carbon emissions, while the remaining 45% is a result from the production, use and disposal of products we use every day such as cars and clothes.

This means that every industry, including our own plastics industry, has a role to play in this major reimagining of our development. If we want to move away from a system that produces and focuses on waste, we need to work toward a place where all that we create is reusable or regenerative in some way. 

Why transition now?

This is perhaps the biggest question we face often. We are already in a global pandemic, why should we make life everso more difficult by trying to upend our economy and shift focus? Well, in short, as what we consider ‘normal’ has either been put on pause or is changing entirely, now is the perfect inflexion point as which we should make a change. 

The UK’s economy is already heading toward a moment of massive regeneration and reimagining. We have entered a major recession and, for us to come out the other side of this with as many jobs being protected as possible, the government is going to have to introduce new policies that, before the coronavirus, we could not imagine a Conservative government doing. As a result, while experts are already considering what the next steps are, they should also be thinking about how these steps can help us in the transition toward a ‘green’ state of living. 

Now is also the perfect time because, frankly, not enough has been done hitherto to facilitate an environment-first policy. At this current moment, only around 2% of plastic packaging is designed and produced in such a way that it is intended to be - and able to be - recycled or reused in any way. To push up this number requires an overall change in mindset because, as we have said previously, a circular economy starts at the moment a product is envisioned. If items are not designed with sustainability in mind, they can’t be created to fit these new ideals. 

We have now also entered a moment of national awareness wherein people want to do more to reduce their own output of waste. Take, for example, the recent ‘War On Plastic’ programme on BBC One. While various people and entities in the plastics industry have taken issue with some of the comments made on the show, the sheer fact that it has been produced and garnered such attention demonstrates the desire for change within our society. 

How to drive change

There are two main ways in which we can drive change at this current moment. The first and perhaps most commonly pursued is through legislation and planning. The EU is currently leading the way toward this transition with its new Circular Economy Action Plan, which focuses on creating a climate-neutral but a competitive and empowered economy. 

Their plan clearly lays out how the lifecycle of products needs to change and the focus during the design stages has to be on reusability. It is a plan that is aware of the challenges that will crop up, such as the destruction of some jobs in packaging and manufacturing, but, all good plans demonstrate ways in which these jobs can be replaced with more efficient and better-paid positions in a carbon-neutral society. A Greenpeace report has recently estimated that the transition to a circular economy in the UK could create 1.8 million new jobs. 

Nonetheless, change can also take place within industries directly. Last week was #ZeroWasteWeek across the UK wherein a variety of businesses, schools and other institutions attempted to go through a week without producing any waste or pollution at all. The campaign’s primary purpose is naturally to increase awareness of the movement toward a climate-neutral society but does still demonstrate the appetite for change. You can read more about the initiative on the organisation’s website, here

At The Plastic People, we are similarly doing all we can to work toward a more green and efficient manufacturing system - and we have been successful so far. All our products are made of 100% recyclable materials and, though we have not yet reached a zero-waste state, we are working toward this. If we can do this, other companies in the industry can follow suit. 

Social media has proved an important stage for climate activism and promotion of campaigns such as the one stated above. If all companies become more transparent about the efforts they are making to fight the environmental crisis, then, we all benefit. It goes without saying as well that as more customers become concerned about their own impact on the environment, they are more likely to work with and purchase from businesses that have similar ethics. 

We hope you, reader, have been able to feed off some of the optimism in this blog post and think about the steps you can make to help facilitate a transition to a more environmentally-friendly and circular economy. If you need more inspiration, then there are a few things we here at The Plastic People can help you with! 

For instance, by purchasing secondary glazing for your home, you are likely to decrease your use of central heating and thereby decrease your fuel consumption (and monthly bills!) For more information about this and other ways you can use plastics for good, head to our website:

We want to hear from you about the steps you are taking! Please get in contact with any ideas you have or activities you are partaking in to become greener. We will make sure to share your work across our social media channels (@barkstonplastic on Twitter and Instagram). And if you have any ideas about what we should cover in this blog in future, please do get in touch! 
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