Solve the plastic problem by building a robust circular economy


Solve the plastic problem by building a robust circular economy

J Lewis

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

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If it can't be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled, or composted, then it should be restricted, designed or removed from production. — Pete Seeger

Last week the Andrew Holness Administration announced that it is committing $75 million, over three years, towards the implementation of a plastic bottle deposit scheme. Minister without portfolio within the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation Daryl Vaz made the announcement on June 8. He said that the scheme is being put in place in partnership with a private sector entity which has already taken on the task of reducing plastic bottle waste in the country. Vaz pointed out that the country needs an integrated approach to waste management and, more specifically, plastic waste.

Also adding his voice on World Oceans Day, Senate President Tom Tavares-Finson, at the sitting of the House on Friday, June 8, 2018, called on the private sector to do more, eg, ban the use of scandal bags. He emphasised that the private sector cannot continue to give people three and four plastic bags because it is not in the interest of the country or their enterprises.

Consider the fact that every year over six million tons of plastic make their way into our oceans and that a recent sampling of global water supplies found micro plastics in 83 per cent of the public taps in the survey.

The Ellen McArthur Foundation estimates that a full 95 per cent of all plastics are disposed of after a single use, representing a loss to the economy of $80 billion to $120 billion every year without considering the negative externalities (UN Environment Programme).

The Government's initiative to minimise the use of plastic bottles is a good start and a step in the right direction. However, the problem I have with these short-term initiatives is the lack of continuity. Usually funds eventually dry up, leaving the beneficiaries broke, with limited capacity to continue. I have no details of the project; however, I hope that this will not be the case.

Shifting to a circular economy

Countries all over the world need resources to run their economies, and an approach known as the circular economy can be key to managing such resources sustainably. Our appetite for resources is growing — from 20 billion tons of primary material extracted in 1970 to over 70 billion tons in 2010.

The circular economy emphasised the necessity to move away from a linear economy based on a 'take, make and dispose mode of production and consumption'. It is this linear economy that is destroying the environment. The idea of closing the loop between our endless resource frontier, which is now increasingly under strain and showing its limits, and our growing need for human welfare is taking a new turn with the appearance of the circular economy (UN Environment). In the absence of government policy to disrupt the linear economy, Tom Jones* will continue to buy his box food (fry chicken with curry gravy) and a plastic bottle soda and the cashier will continue to put Tom's food in a single plastic bag. When Tom Jones leaves with another set of waste, that will be added misery to marine life. Tom Jones eats, and is satisfied. The producers of the plastic bottles and styrofoam boxes are happy with the 25 per cent increase in profit and smile their way to the bank because more box food and sodas are sold year in, year out.

What Tom Jones is not aware of is that marine plastic pollution poses a direct threat to the balance of marine ecosystems and human health. Plastics have a direct and indirect negative impact on biodiversity, and as plastic waste enters the food chain through unsuspecting channels, such as microparticles, an environmental issue transforms into a major challenge to human health and livelihood. It has, therefore, become essential to better understand the causes and effects of marine plastic pollution in order to take effective action towards reducing its impact. Preserving ocean health means preserving human well-being (UNESCO).

In a circular economy, the aim is to close the loops, and any materials taken from nature should be used not only efficiently but also for as long as possible. Jamaica can implement the circular economy on a macro (transitioning the whole society toward a circular economy), meso (interactions among sectors, industries and companies) and micro level (individual products and processes are targeted).

Among the UN Sustainable Development Goals, goal #12 concerns sustainable consumption and production, emphasising the necessity for an improved resource management. What we have not fully appreciated as a country is that waste is a source for economic growth and prosperity. However, if we are to see the full potential of our waste, its management and initiatives for resources recovery are essential drivers in the circular economy. In my conservative estimation, Jamaica's net resource spending can be reduced to one billion a year if it shifts to a circular economy, while creating jobs and also providing substantial benefits to the environment for generations to come. The circular economy ensures that governments are paying forward for our children's children. $75 million, Vaz, is not enough, but it is a start we hope that will seriously advance the argument to your boss, the prime minister, that the way to go is shifting to the circular economy.

The case of Sweden

Let's learn from Sweden, whose waste management system is based mainly on the incineration of waste. About 99 per cent of household mixed waste (the garbage bag) ends up incinerated, with energy recovery as the final treatment. The general principle in the European Union and globally is to follow a waste hierarchy, according to which the preferred solution is to prevent waste, followed by reuse, recycling, recovery (including incineration), and lastly, the disposal of waste.

This Sweden project identified six factors that can lead to improved recycling: legislation, leadership, networking, education, simplification, and space. Research has shown that similar approaches also exist in Asia and US. Sweden has been highly successful at transitioning from disposal to recovery. If the Government decides to take a meso approach to implementing the circular, economy it should pilot the project by using the public sector.

The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it. So let's take care of our planet!

There is no such thing as 'away'. When we throw anything away (plastic), it must go somewhere. — Annie Leonard

Henry J Lewis is a lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica, School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Send comments to the Observer or

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