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Thinking big on the future of plastics

If we carry on as we are, in 2050 there will be more plastic by weight than fish in our oceans. That was arguably the most staggering statistic for many environmentalists last year when it was revealed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Iain Gulland | 13 Mar 17

Policy makers and business leaders are responding to the challenge to start thinking big about what a circular economy for plastics would look like. Zero Waste Scotland is part of that movement as a founding member of the New Plastics Economy initiative.

It’s in this context that I’m heartened by the progress starting to be made here in Scotland. Zero Waste Scotland has, over many years, pushed the business and environmental case for reprocessing our waste plastic here in Scotland, creating our own closed loop, like we’ve got with waste glass being fed back into bottling for the whisky industry.

Earlier this month, the British Plastics Federation hosted its first reception in the Scottish Parliament, focusing on the opportunities of a circular economy. It was an impressive event, attended mainly by business leaders, and showing an industry, worth £1.5bn to Scotland, that clearly wants to lead on this agenda.

The opportunity is definitely there. In Scotland we’re taking action right through the value chain to get more plastics looping back into the economy. Our waste regulations obligate the separation of plastic from mixed waste, our recycling charter is improving the consistency and quality of plastics coming out of households, our materials brokerage is gearing up to supply those materials into the market at scale, and our Circular Economy Investment Fund and range of business support can help companies create transformative uses for them, including getting them back into domestic manufacturing.

But as ever these things need more than just the right policies; they need industry to have ownership of their own vision and opportunities. At the event in Parliament, Grangemouth-based Impact Solutions shared their revolutionary BOSS sorting system, which makes the separation of rigid plastics easier and more cost effective. Their order book is growing, including from overseas customers, demonstrating that our transition to a circular economy can have export potential too.

This is typical of the spirit of innovation that’s been part of plastics recycling for many years. It’ll be interesting to see how that carries on as production and logistics shift to more circular models. 3D printing, for example, offers exciting prospects for eliminating production wastes and decentralising manufacturing, along the lines envisaged by the FabLab movement. But it could be even more compelling if it was fed from short supply chains, using raw materials sourced from our waste plastics.

NASA has already developed this technology for use on the international space station. It would be ‘out of this world’ to see that transfer to our smart cities of the future.

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