German sportswear firm Adidas last month constructed a football field in the United States using 1.8 million plastic bottles and handed it over to a high school, earning accolades.
It was an iconic demonstration of the role manufacturers around the world can play in not only managing plastic waste but going a step further to putting it to a much better use.
By Adidas transforming discarded plastic into a sustainable playfield, it added value to the original plastic material – a concept called up-cycling within sustainability circles.
Modern society and businesses globally has discovered the cheap, flexible and multipurpose plastic which has become the ubiquitous material of today’s fast-moving economy. Globally just 14 percent of the plastic packaging makes its way to recycling plants, and only nine percent is actually recycled. Thirty-three percent is left in fragile ecosystems such as oceans, and 40 percent ends up in landfill.
While recycling creates a circular economy by reusing waste material along the same value chain for production, upcycled waste gets repurposed by being turned into entirely new products, often of higher value. Repurposed plastic can be used to create works of art, for instance, or in Adidas case, a turf soccer pitch and a traditional sailing boat (FlipFlopi) for environmentalists at Kenyan coast.
The question here is, in what instances should players in the sustainability field opt for one and not the other, especially where plastic is concerned?
Granted, both recycling and upcycling serve the same purpose – they seek to reduce plastic pollution on land and oceans and prolong the economic value of used material. Rapid urbanisation has come along with increased consumerism, pushing up the mountain of waste generated by households and individuals.
In the absence of proper waste disposal infrastructure, most plastic waste ends up in unplanned dumpsites while the rest is washed into rivers and eventually oceans.
Indeed certain situations demand recycling of plastic waste and upcycling for others.
In the absence of regulatory bans, plastic material is better off being recycled – reusing the waste material along the same value chain over and over and leading to a closed circulation loop. With a sealed loop, it means less or no plastic goes to waste or gets diverted to other uses outside its original purpose, removing the need for entirely new production.
In Kenya, several manufacturers, including Unilever, Coca Cola, Peptang, Kevian and Bidco Africa have turned to recycling their packaging materials by partnering with local recyclers and collectors.
While they’re far off from achieving a circular economy within their Kenyan operations, mostly because of poor infrastructure for plastic waste collection and transportation, they’re edging closer to the sustainability path. More importantly, partnerships are proving to be the silver bullet on this sustainability journey, giving businesses the ammunition to fight pollution while managing costs through recycling.
Besides environment-clean up, both recycling and upcycling could help create local jobs downstream, improving lives in the process.
But this responsibility shouldn’t be borne by manufacturers alone even though they’re the biggest producers of solid waste. Retailers and players in other sectors should join the bandwagon too given that we share the same environment regardless of our contribution to it.
Equally, some supermarkets have installed plastic drop-off points as part of its take-back scheme to encourage responsible behaviour among consumers.
A circular economy generally turns products that are at the end of their service life into resources for the next round of new products. It could be waste water, paper, old clothes or e-waste, not just plastics.
Adopting this circular path might enable organisations to transition away from the unsustainable linear production of take-make-dispose, towards models where goods are designed and produced for extended use, creating long-term value and resource use efficiency.
This endeavour will also help businesses to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SDG 12), specifically target 12.5 on substantially reducing waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse. Moving to a circular economy also contributes to achieving SDG 14, Life on Water, through target 14.1 on preventing and reducing marine pollution of all kinds. Engagement in the circular economy will definitely lead to economic gains. According to the World Economic Forum, plastic packaging waste represents an $80–120 billion loss to the global economy every year and going the circular economy way will be able to save the dollars.