Plastic produces almost double the emissions of aviation. Why have we only recycled 9%?
Why we invested in cirplus
If you’ve ever visited a coffee shop in summer - whether it’s Starbucks or an independent shop - chances are that you left with a smoothie or iced coffee complete with paper straw. This paper straw is a hard-won victory of public campaigning, but look below the tiny straw and there is normally a plastic cup: a reminder of the limits of consumer pressure.
Make no mistake, removing plastic straws is a coup and it’s saved an estimated billions of straws each year - but straws are a figurative and literal drop in the ocean. Reports from a few years ago have shown that straws make up around 0.00002% of the weight of all marine plastic pollution.
The responsibility to solve the climate crisis is often handed to individuals, including solving plastic pollution, but it is such a huge and opaque task that personal responsibility will only get us so far. We need systemic, industrial solutions that work with, not against, market incentives.
But firstly: where did the world’s obsession with plastic come from? And is it really that bad?
The original optimism for plastic
Plastic wasn’t always known for having a bad environmental impact. Believe it or not, plastic was originally lauded as a saviour for the natural world. To understand why, we need to take a quick detour to the 19th-century billiards table.
Billiards was the height of fashion in the United States, and the game’s growing popularity led to a burgeoning demand for ivory billiard balls. But for every set of billiard balls produced two elephants were killed, so using ivory was both morally questionable and expensive.
It was the expense that was addressed first.
Michael Phelan - who was later termed “the father of American billiards” - put out an advert in New York. He offered $10,000 for anyone who could find a substitute for ivory. Six years, and many experiments later, a printer-turned-inventor called John Wesley Hyatt succeeded: creating the first synthetic polymer in 1869.
Knowing what we do today, it is bemusing how Hyatt’s company first boasted about the new material. Celluloid, the precursor to plastics, was positioned as a boon for the natural world. Pamphlets gushed that: "celluloid [has] given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts” and that “...it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer”.
We now know plastic is ransacking the earth in new ways, but admittedly plastic has been a blessing as well as a curse. Plastic has enabled human expression through film and photography, expedited electrification (through cable coating) and allowed for portable medical solutions and revolutionised healthcare. But plastic use has exploded. Since 1950, the global production of plastics has gone from 1.5 million tonnes to 367 million tonnes in 2020. It’s accelerating fast, and it’s this addiction to plastic that’s starting to cause big problems.
Why is plastic so bad?
Plastic is bad for the planet both because of how it’s produced and what happens to it after its been produced. Most images we see are of plastic waste - which is what happens after it’s produced - so let’s start with that.
Plastic waste happens because we don’t reuse and recycle enough. We’ve known since the early 1970s that plastics were ending up in our oceans and coastal regions, and today only 9% of all the plastic produced has been recycled to make new plastics. Instead, it is sent to landfill, or burnt and dumped illegally. We have so much plastic now that the total mass of plastic in our world today is more than double that of all living mammals on the planet.
Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen
Plastic is made from fossil fuels
We’ve covered the issues that arrive after plastic has been made. How it’s made arguably matters even more when it comes to climate change. 99% of all plastic is made from fossil fuels, and plastic accounts for almost double the global emissions of the aviation sector (3.8%).
While other industries are en route to decarbonise and reduce their reliance on oil, the current plastic production method will actually increase oil demand. The petrochemical industry is expected to quadruple its production before 2050, producing more than 1.4 billion tons of plastic.
Read that again. The industry will produce over 1 billion new tons of plastic, every year.
What can we do?
Recycling existing plastic helps solve both of plastic’s problems - but it simply hasn’t been cheap or simple enough to buy recycled plastics of the highest quality.
Plastics need to be separated at source, cleaned and processed to meet the exact characteristics of the original plastic, and currently this is too expensive. Unlike most markets, where it’s obviously cheaper to buy a used item than buy new, with plastics it’s actually cheaper to buy brand new virgin plastics than it is to use recycled plastics.
Remember those billiard balls? It was only the rising cost of ivory that finally led to the material being replaced. To turn off the plastic tap we need recycled plastics to compete on price with virgin plastic.
You can’t make bottles out of park benches
There are lots of plastics available - each with a ‘Plastic Resin Identification’ and each with unique properties. They’re manufactured for very specific use cases: from yoghurt cups to car interiors to rotor blades for wind farms. But, right now, the vast majority are simply blended and processed together into one low grade product - only suitable for a narrow spectrum of uses like park benches. This isn’t great. Mixing plastics up like this is the equivalent of mixing up all your favourite coloured paints to make one uniform brown colour. The components are the same, but the utility is much more limited than if you’d kept the colours separate.
The exception to the rule is PET. PET (like PET bottles) are collected clean at source through deposit return schemes, and the recycling rates can reach up to 8-10 times through these closed loops. This shows the potential for recycling plastics separated at source and the possibility to truly close the loop for plastics through better systems.
cirplus’ goal is to make plastic waste history by finally making the plastic supply chain circular. They are building a global B2B marketplace for recycled plastics.
cirplus connects recyclers (sellers) with plastic converters and their brands (buyers) in extremely fragmented and opaque markets. This digitalization reduces transaction costs and allows recycled plastic to finally compete on price with virgin plastics - massively reducing the demand for new plastic production, and enabling companies to create new products using more recycled plastic.
cirplus have also pioneered the first-ever industrial standard for high-quality recycling (DIN SPEC 91446). This creates standardisation across all categories of polymers for the entire industry - so buyers and sellers can communicate seamlessly and scale global supply chains. This is a huge achievement, with 16 industry professionals collaborating to build it from scratch over more than 1,000 hours.
We invested in cirplus - founded by Christian Schiller and Volkan Bilici - because of their supremely passionate and knowledgeable approach to the space. We were joined in their latest round by VNV and expert angels like Nicolas Brusson the Founder of BlaBlaCar, and Eric Quidenus-Wahlforss the Founder of Soundcloud.
We are excited to see cirplus build on the groundswell of consumer demand to move away from new plastics and to offer a real alternative to virgin plastics for businesses.
♻️ Do you use plastic, but want to move to recycled material? Say hello to cirplus!
💡Want to go deep into research into the plastic industry? Check our Notion here.