Stemming the tide of the plastic crisis requires systemic solutions that tackle the problem at the source. Expanding the implementation of innovative reuse solutions is key to achieving this.
The costs of plastic waste
Marine plastic pollution is among the most urgent environmental problems pressing our planet, with nearly 8 million tons of plastic ending up in the ocean annually — a number that’s only expected to rise in the coming years, further contributing to the $2.5 trillion the world loses to plastic pollution annually. Given the urgency of the issue, we need to focus our efforts on finding solutions that combat plastic waste at the source and keep plastic packaging materials in a closed circular system that is both sustainable and cost-saving. This is where reuse comes in.
Upstream initiatives, where reuse plays a key role, have been gaining significant momentum in recent years as a promising solution to close the tap on plastic waste. Though downstream initiatives like building more recycling facilities play a crucial role, by comparison, business models with reuse at their core hold real potential to stop plastic pollution all while significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in the process and driving down annual waste management costs accompanying our current linear plastic system that’s costing the world’s economy between $80 billion and $120 billion per year.
The case for investing in reusables
Since the costs for enabling a socio-ecological transition spurred by reuse solutions are relatively low , the overall capital expenditures are thus rather limited — yet the savings are immediate and significant, making reuse models financially attractive.
When looking at the investment needed for implementing a reuse solution as compared to that required for a recycling one, it quickly becomes evident that reuse is the winner. The installation of a recycling unit can cost as much as €70 million, while a comparable reuse solution typically requires no more than €500,000 per unit, a significant difference that also comes with a greater impact for every euro spent.
Take Econesia, the Zero Waste Living Lab’s water solution, which is providing Indonesian hotels, as well as schools, gyms, and households, with a water filtration system, replacing single-use plastic bottles that are so commonly found in hotels. According to our estimates, a one-time investment of $2.7 billion would enable the hospitality industry worldwide to adopt Econesia’s reuse solution and thus prevent the consumption of around 6.5 million tonnes of plastic every year, all while saving $45 billion in annual packaging costs for bottled water. The most significant savings associated with implementing Econesia’s reuse solution would come from avoiding costly production and distribution of plastic packaging in the first place. On top of that, the reverse logistics process associated with reusables would yield further savings.
What’s more, reusables only have to be manufactured once for numerous cycles of use, with minimal expense for subsequent product maintenance that occurs between use of cycles, including the s the energy costs for collecting and washing the reusable containers — a negligible expense compared to the collecting, sorting, shredding, melting, and pouring into a new mold, that takes place during the process of plastic recycling.
On top of that, the operating costs for a reusable model are also very low because the business case quickly becomes self-sufficient, reducing overall expenditures and maximising impact as it scales up. This means that after the initial investment needed to build and implement the solution, the model can then run financially unassisted, without any further investments.
Reuse reduces CO2 and waste management costs
It is also worth noting that, in addition to the waste management costs saved when implementing reusables, there is also a significant reduction in GHGs associated with reducing the production of plastic through reuse models. This, in turn, further reduces the negative externalities of plastic in a way that’s more cost efficient and environmentally-sensible than the implementation of waste management systems such as recycling.
In fact, city authorities typically incur hefty expenses as part of their waste management operations. Take Belgium, for example, where annual costs of prevention, cleaning, and processing of litter in the region of Flanders, alone, is €164 million — that’s more than €25 per person yearly. Municipalities in the Netherlands too, are faced with overwhelming waste management costs, annually spending around €34,000 per km of beach cleaned, with the vast majority of the collected litter consisting of single-use plastics.
In Indonesia, rising urban populations and rates of waste generation are also putting increasing pressure on municipalities to deal with their growing waste — an urgent issue considering the fact that roughly 40 percent of urban households in the country lack access to adequate waste management services. Without reducing the use of plastic in the first place — something that can be successfully achieved through reuse business models — municipalities of major urban areas will have to add a lot more to the €80 million they’re pulling out of their wallets every year to manage their solid waste, a big chunk of which is single-use plastic.
The ecological and financial benefits of reuse models have also been accentuated by one of the most comprehensive reports on solving the plastic crisis recently issued by the PEW Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ: “A reduction of plastic production— through elimination, the expansion of consumer reuse options, or new delivery models—is the most attractive solution from environmental, economic, and social perspectives. It offers the biggest reduction in plastic pollution, often represents a net saving, and provides the highest mitigation opportunity in GHG emissions.”
As businesses, governments, and civil society increasingly turn to look for sensible solutions to prevent the thickening of the plastic soup that’s plaguing our seas, it is essential that their efforts are directed towards initiatives that are not only environmentally but also economically reasonable. While adequate recycling infrastructures play a crucial role, they cannot stop the overwhelming leakage of plastic waste into our marine environment. That’s why it is essential to invest in, and facilitate the expansion of, more innovative reuse business models that reduce plastic production and the use of raw materials in the first place. As shown by the arguments mentioned above, this will not only free the planet from unnecessary waste and pollution but will also spare the global economy enormous sums of money that would be better spent elsewhere.