Ocean Plastic and the Circular Economy: What Can We Learn from RPCs?

written by IFCO SYSTEMS, 29th September 2017, in Stories

Plastic waste, especially ocean plastic, is a huge problem. As one Washington Post headline noted in July, there’s literally a ton of plastic garbage for every person on earth. This report prompted many ensuing articles and op-ed pieces such as "We are drowning in plastic, literally." In fact, ocean plastic has been an issue for several years. Back in 2004, Wired published "Drowning in an Ocean of Plastic". "Every year we’re learning about something bad that’s going on in the seas," the article quoted one researcher. "It’s just dawning on people that the oceans are in deep trouble."

Thirteen years later, plastic continues to accumulate at sea and elsewhere. To summarize the study covered in the Washington Post story, greater than 9 billion tons of plastic have been produced since 1950, and most of it still exists:

A new study that tracked the global manufacture and distribution of plastics since they became widespread after World War II found that only 2 billion tons of that plastic are still in use. Seven billion tons is stuck on Earth as garbage in landfills, recycled trash or pollution in the environment, including deep oceans, where it’s been discovered in the mouths of whales and the bellies of dead seabirds that mistook it for food. A small amount is eliminated in incinerators.

One-half of the plastic that is used mostly once and then trashed has been created in the last 30 years, according to the research.

According to a 2016 report, 80% of ocean plastic is generated from land-based sources, predominantly plastic packaging, including beverage bottles. Primary microplastic emissions are also huge harmful, accounting for around 10% of land-based ocean plastic, including dust from tires, pellet spills, plastics from textiles, plastics from cosmetics, and paints. Secondary microplastic results from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic in the waste stream. Around 20% of ocean plastic results from plastics released at sea, predominantly related to lost or abandoned fishing gear.

Plastic is an amazing useful material, but when it is not contained within a closed loop system, it can too easily end up in the oceans. To reap the value of plastic without the environmental costs, it is necessary to control the flow of the material so that it remains in a closed loop of usage and recycling. In this regard, a Circular Economy approach makes sense.

"A circular economy is one that is restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles." explains the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leading proponent of the Circular Economy.

RPCs are a perfect example of the Circular Economy in action and how plastic packaging can contribute to society without contributing to ocean plastic. Durable IFCO RPCs are used dozens of times. They are loaded with fresh products and delivered to retailers, where they are emptied. Then, they are accumulated at the distribution center for return to IFCO, where they are washed and inspected before reissue to the next customer. When they are eventually damaged beyond economic repair, they are recycled to make new RPCs. Because RPCs are valuable containers that are diligently managed throughout their lifecycle, they stay within IFCO’s closed loop system.

When materials are not actively managed throughout their lifecycles, however, environmental problems such as ocean plastic can be the unfortunate result. Experts recommend tackling the problem "upstream" before plastic ends up in the sea. For example, reducing the use of single-use plastic packaging where possible is one way to lessen the problem at the source. More proactive management of post-use plastic is also critical to make sure it remains in a closed loop to enable recycling, waste-to-energy conversion, or effective landfilling. Eliminating opportunities for unmanaged plastic to be carried by wind or water into the ocean will be critical to turning the tide on plastic waste.

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