Reversing the Plastic Pollution Crisis with the Circular Economy
Plastic pollution, long seen as marginal and largely aesthetic, is now established as one of humanity’s greatest challenges. Plastic production grew more than twenty times between 1964 and 2015 and is expected to double again by 2035 and quadruple by mid-century. Most of this plastic is discarded in landfills and our oceans. At this rate, by 2050, there will be more plastic, by weight, than fish in the seas—and plastics can take up to 500 years to break down.
Of special concern is the plastic pollution coming from synthetic microfibers in our clothing and consumer products—tiny strands of plastic shed by synthetic fabrics such as polyester, rayon, acrylic, spandex, and nylon. Each time we wash, millions of microfibers are released into our waterways and the ocean beyond. There are estimates from a few thousand fibers in a single load of laundry to 700,000 fibers in 13 pounds of laundry, according to a University of Plymouth study. Plastic fibers now account for 60-80% of ocean debris, and microfibers are now embedded in sea ice, the bellies of animals, remote mountain lakes, deep ocean trenches and in our soil, drinking water, beer, and table salt.
To address these concerns, California, Connecticut, and New York have proposed legislation to bring awareness to consumers about reducing the release of microfibers. Corporate and independent media have extensively covered the problem of microplastic pollution. Yet the minimal coverage of solutions has been limited to better management of “disposable” resources with improved consumer information, better washing and drying technology, and/or clean-up efforts. All of these solutions tackle pollution after it has happened—as part of the dominant “take, make, waste” linear economy. None of these “solutions” address the root cause of the problem. The circular economy (CE), by contrast, extracts as much value from its used resources and it then recovers and regenerates those resources. It aims to design out waste and hazardous materials in favor of restoration and regeneration.
Groundbreaking companies are using the CE to create an entirely new green chemical platform, involving substitutes for harmful chemicals used in textiles production, and recycled, biodegradable fibers. Circular Systems, for example, is creating technology that transforms food crop waste (oilseed hemp and flax straw as well as pineapple leaves, banana trunks, and sugar cane bark) into high-value natural fiber textiles. PrimaLoft, a New York-based company, introduced Bio, a biodegradable, 100% recycled synthetic insulation and fabric that breaks down when exposed to specific environments such as a landfill or the ocean. Unlike nylon or polyester which takes hundreds of years to biodegrade, Bio fibers degrade in about 18 months—faster than a banana peel. The insulation is sandwiched between layers of cotton and finished with wood buttons, so the whole thing biodegrades.
Trucost and the American Chemistry Council have estimated that the environmental cost of plastics could reach $139 billion a year. The World Economic Forum has reported that implementing the circular economy worldwide could yield material cost savings of up to $1 trillion a year by 2025. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has estimated that it could unlock business opportunities worth $4.5 trillion. The circular economy is nothing less than a blueprint for a fundamental transformation of our economic system and our environment.
Global Environment Facility, “The Circular Economy: Tackling Plastic Pollution,” Global Environment Facility, June 10, 2019, https://www.thegef.org/news/circular-economy-tackling-plastic-pollution.
Global Environment Facility, “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle: A Circular Economy Approach to Plastics,” Global Environment Facility, June 11, 2019, https://www.thegef.org/news/reduce-reuse-and-recycle-circular-economy-approach-plastics.
Jemima Kiss, “#Plasticfree: How to Handle the Scary Plastic Threat on Our Own Backs,” The Guardian, March 14, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/mar/14/plastic-microfiber-pollution-clothes-washing-solutions.
Jennifer Marks, “Fibers, Finishes Take Aim at Textile Waste Reduction, Circularity,” Home Textiles Today, June 4, 2019. https://www.hometextilestoday.com/industry-news/fibers-finishes-take-aim-textile-waste-reduction-circularity/.
Jeremy Hobson, “Every Time You Wash Clothes, Millions of Microfibers Are Released Into the Water.” Here & Now, WBUR, August 28, 2019, https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/08/28/microfiber-pollution-ocean.
Licheng Peng, Dongdong Fu, Huaiyuan Qi, Christopher Q. Lan, Huamei Yu, Chengjun Ge, “Micro-and Nano-Plastics in Marine Environment: Source Distribution, and Threats—A Review,” ScienceDirect, September 2, 2019, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969719342378.
SGS (General Society of Surveillance), “U.S. Concerns on Microfiber Pollution,” SGS, June 3, 2019, https://www.sgs.com/en/news/2019/05/safeguards-07619-us-concerns-on-microfiber-pollution.
Vanessa Mason, “The Disappearing Jacket,” Pressreader, September 1, 2019, https://www.pressreader.com/usa/mens-journal/20190901/283003991420375.
Student Researcher: Amber Yang (Sonoma State University) and Malyk White (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)
Review Article with Credder