TU.2.E || Tools, Metrics and Labels for a Circular Economy

Goga, Taahira; von Blottnitz, Harro; Harding, Kevin

Due to the increasing visibility of plastic pollution, global efforts are gaining pace to address the negative impacts of rapidly rising production on the ecosystem and human health. Until recently, the focus has been limited to targeting sources of marine litter and increasing the rate of downsteam processing of waste. The circular economy concept is viewed as a complementary solution to the plastic pollution challenge by increasing the quality and uptake of recycling and decoupling economic growth from fossil feedstocks. To estimate the effectiveness and quantify the impacts of implementing such circular solutions, a combination of material flow and life cycle approaches is necessary. Environmental assessment tools such as Material Flow Analysis (MFA) and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) were applied to represent the South African plastic sector, generating an inventory of mass-based leakage and circularity indicators as well as indicators of potential environmental damage including a cradle-to-grave carbon footprint. This will serve as a baseline case to test potential circular strategies centred around the decarbonisation of the local plastics sector. These include increasing mechanical recycling rates as laid out in industry and policy targets, and integration of renewable energy sources. Preliminary results indicate that the South African plastics industry generates 19.2 Mteq CO2 emissions annually with the majority of these impacts originating from the local coal-based polymer production process. The consumption of fossil fuel-based electricity, as well as the burning of plastic waste, were also contributing factor whilst recycling contributed only 1% of GHG emissions at an output recycling rate of 30%. This finding confirms that current mechanical recycling activities contributes strongly to impact reduction and is likely to significantly improve the sustainability profile of the local plastics sector before it needs to be supplemented by other strategies.