Harald Henriksen, Executive Vice-President and Head of TOMRA Collection Solutions.
We need to stop viewing plastic as waste, and instead view it as a resource – and an opportunity. Together we must take up the challenge of converting the global population to a mindset where materials such as plastic are seen and treated as reusable and valuable.
The linear economy model of take-make-dispose has been accelerating for the past 40 years. At its heart is a culture of waste: viewing products as disposable, with little regard for what becomes of them once discarded. The linear economy does not work for the planet. It never has and it never will. Linear processes waste time, money and resources – and are simply not sustainable.
A plastic bottle derived from oil takes tens of millions of years to reach you – and yet all that is lost in just five seconds, when it is tossed in a bin or littered on beaches or streets. The linear economy is a failure to see the bigger picture, and a failure to consider how future generations will utilize the same resources we do.
The reuse and recycle challenge
Cold, hard fact: the earth’s natural resources are finite. If oil deposits dry up, we cannot wait 70 million years for more to form. We are buying more and consuming more – and as the population grows, so does the problem. New ways of thinking and acting are required on a global scale to move us toward a circular economy: an economy that closes the resource loop, gives back to the planet and protects future generations. But how do we do it?
TOMRA Collection Solutions is focused on addressing this challenge. TOMRA Collection Solutions’ contribution to the circular economy is providing the tools that enable the reuse and recycling of bottles and cans that could otherwise end up in our landfills, streets and oceans. Our more than 75 000 reverse vending machines installed across the world receive over 35 billion empty drinking containers every year.
Reuse and recycling play a key role in closing this loop and ensuring lasting value, both for the end product and the original resource. Recycling in general addresses the problems of the linear economy by finding a new purpose for disposed materials, like turning plastic bottles into other products such as fleece or carpeting. This open-loop recycling reduces the need for raw materials in making those new products, in turn saving energy.
Reuse goes a step further: items can be used again and again for the same purpose, without changing their chemical composition. An example is the glass bottles that can be sent back to the producer for cleaning and refilling, a global tradition going on more than 100 years. Refillable PET bottles have existed for several decades.
However, even a plastic bottle that is not designed for refilling can still become a new plastic bottle. Reverse vending installations like TOMRA’s play a unique role in driving the circular economy, because containers – whether refillable or not – that are collected, sorted, compacted and recycled through reverse vending machines give high material quality and purity. The materials can be used again and again, in a continuous, circular loop.
Many beverage containers we throw into today’s single-stream waste system get too dirty to be turned into new containers, due to contamination from other types of waste. By separating these containers for collection in reverse vending machines, plastic materials stay in the loop and get a new life. Wastage is minimal, with little need to bring new resources into this loop – further saving energy, and almost eliminating reliance on virgin materials. And, as long as plastic materials stay inside this loop, they cannot contaminate groundwater in landfills, litter streets or harm marine life. At TOMRA, we call this closed-loop recycling the Cleanest Loop. Used plastic bottles are not waste; they are an opportunity.
The road ahead
The unsustainable approach of take-make-dispose needs to stop. We must work together to change the perceptions, attitudes and behaviors around plastic, in order achieve a truly circular economy. Moving towards reuse and closed-loop recycling is the only way we can help to optimize resource productivity and reduce the requirement to harvest finite natural materials.
This can only be achieved by acknowledging that our current resource consumption is unsustainable, and taking accountability for that consumption. By embracing a culture of reuse and bottle-to-bottle recycling, we can close the loop and safeguard our planet for future generations.