In this episode of the TOMRA Talks Circular podcast, our CEO and co-founder Clarissa Morawski explores the complicated matter of moving towards a circular economy – the challenges, as well as the solutions that will help us keep products and materials in the loop for as long as possible, and, by extension, help us regenerate our natural systems and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Listen to the episode by clicking here, or use your favourite platform (Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcasts)
- Introduction to Reloop. [00:59]
- How to shift to circular economy, Clarissa explains! [02:10]
- Differences in the waste management sector in the Global South and Global North. [05:19]
- The problem is not `Plastic´ but `Plastic Waste´. [08:43]
- What percentage of plastic recovered is actually recycled? [12:15]
- Embodied energy explained. [14:27]
- Embodied energy in virgin plastics vs in recycled plastics. [16:38]
Mithu: Hello and Welcome to the TOMRA Talks Circular podcast. In this episode, we’re gonna take some time to get a better idea of the concept of circular economy along with the challenges and opportunities that our circular economy holds. I am Mithu Mohren, and our guest today has been in the industry for over 25 years and is really one of the most passionate people I know, when it comes to circularity, Clarissa Morawski, Co-founder and CEO of `Reloop´. Clarissa, welcome to the program.
Clarissa: Thank you very much.
Mithu: So, Clarissa some of our listeners may not have heard of Reloop before. Maybe you can tell us who they are, and what they do?
Clarissa: Yeah, so Reloop was founded in 2015. We are an international not-for-profit organisation. We bring together governments, industry, charities, and other bodies that share the vision of a circular economy. Effectively we want world free of waste and pollution. A world where we reduce, reuse and recycle as much as possible, so that our precious resources remain resources in continuous use. and of course, people, businesses and nature can flourish. We call this a circular economy, and it informs everything that really does. We have recently expanded to America or north America, where we have a 5013 C and we are hoping to expand to Asia in 2023.
Mithu: OK. And what is a 5013 C, for those of us who wouldn’t?
Clarissa: Yeah, in the complexity of the bureaucracy of America, it’s basically a not-for-profit organisation.
Mithu: So Clarissa, as I said, you’ve been in the industry for 25 years or so. I’d be curious to know how do you define the circular economy and what do you see are the main challenges in becoming more circular?
Clarissa: To become more circular, we have to shift away from that linear economy where we extract, manufacture, consume and discard to a more circular economy. And it starts with avoidance, and then through redesign and rethinking. How do we get the utility needed without waste to reuse or to recycle? So, a true circular economy would both reduce the inputs from the resources, and the outputs, in the form of waste and emissions. Now, it’s very challenging because the new paradigm of circularity is far more challenging than this current linear model. In a circular system, you have to ensure that all those value chain players in the circle are talking to each other, because ultimately the material that you want to get back at the end of the circle, beginning of the new circle satisfies the specifications that are needed for the producer to re-incorporate that material right back into the system again. And that’s where it gets extremely challenging, because our current way of doing business is not thinking in terms of circularity, which requires a lot more communication, agreement standardization, setting up systems so that all of these players can talk to each other. And that’s really where the challenges lie and that’s the work that we have to do. At the end of the day, what we’re going to see in terms of circularity, is we’re going to see investments into more collecting, more sorting infrastructure, with the promises of scaling up. We’re going to see packaging suppliers and brand owners with greater access to better design, recyclable packaging, packaging with recycled content, reusable packaging solutions. We’re going to design out waste and pollution, at the same time keeping products and materials in the economy as long as possible. And this will help us to contribute to regenerate natural systems, even like turning organic food waste into rich nutrient soil and reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides. So, it’s for both the biological materials and the non-biological materials, and all of which we need to look at them in the sort of prism of circularity.
Mithu: OK, so if I’m listening Clarissa, it sounds to me like this needs to be a real real collaborative approach. Otherwise, we’re just not gonna get there.
Clarissa: That’s very much so, Yes! And that’s why we need government to be involved in this because, they are really the most efficient entity to bring the players together and say OK everybody, you now need to work together so that we can ensure that these materials go through the whole system and come back again.
Mithu: One of the collaborators you mentioned is waste management. So, I like to turn our attention towards this arena. You know that TOMRA has recently launched a white paper that defines and looks at what’s called a Holistic Resource System. Can you describe the current waste management structures that are in place globally and in Europe, and if you think we’re moving in the right direction when it comes to the Circular Economy?
Clarissa: Yes, so that’s a very big question, because the world has many different levels of waste management, let’s just say. So, let’s just start with the Global South, where you have a far more informal waste management sector where you have literally people picking material and going and running it through the economy, there’s a lot less technology, it’s more manual and frankly in the Global South, they are just unable to keep up with the mountain of waste products and packaging that are being primarily imported from the Global North. So, it’s a very dire situation in the Global South. In Europe there’s a big difference between Northern Europe, Southern Europe, Eastern Europe. Let’s just say they’re all at different levels and have different technologies and legislation in place to manage the waste. In the United States there is a very little extended producer responsibility laws and obligations. So, you are very much counting on the waste management sector to do what is primarily land filling with some re-cycling as well and very little incineration. So, I would say that unbalanced western Europe sort of leads the way in terms of circular economy right now, but we’re starting to see some countries in Asia getting up to speed and moving at a very rapid pace. So, the holistic system basically provides a scientific look at the waste stream by dividing the material up into a series of different collection and sorting systems. and these are beverage containers for example, which have been deemed to be best collected, most efficiently collected through deposit return schemes, which involve offering a financial incentive to consumers to return them and have them properly managed through recycling or reuse. Then we have separate collection which is appropriate for select materials that require separate collection. We see a lot of separate collection systems in Europe and in North America. And then finally we have residual sorting, which is effectively going into the black garbage bag and pulling out all the valuable resources from the black garbage bag. We know, after 15 years of experience that we are simply not able to get people to properly recycle and separate everything they have, that is valuable and should be recirculated. So why not just go into that residual bag and get the good stuff out. Things like metal, plastics, is easily sorted out of mixed waste. And we have to deploy those technologies and we have to deploy them sometimes even in a bigger way in some jurisdictions where we have very little recycling at all. The technology that exists today to do that residual waste sorting from a technological perspective is hugely advanced than it was say 15 or 20 years ago, when there were some companies trying to sell these technologies. So, we’re way further ahead in terms of the possibilities of extracting large percentages of that waste stream out in good quality and recirculating it into the Circular Economy.
Mithu: OK. That sounds effective, sounds complex, but certainly effective. In effect is what we need. One material you were talking about getting out of residual waste is plastics, and when it comes to circular economy plastic seems to be getting a really bad wrath which is caught at that. But in the end plastic is actually good material, it’s lightweight, so if you’re looking at transportation it’s often the material that has the least CO2 footprint. It’s protective, so when you’re looking at food for example it might actually help, I think it’s proven to help reduce food waste. The problem seems to be Clarissa, is what we do with the plastic after we’ve used it, so plastic waste, how bad it was that problem?
Clarissa: Well, when we talk about packaging, plastic packaging for example, the problem is bad and sadly it may be getting worse mainly in countries that don’t have sufficient recycling infrastructure to manage what I call a tsunami of lightweight, hard to collect and even harder to recycle `plastics. I’m talking about things like aluminum and plastic sachets which are shipped in the billions to poorer countries, like in the Philippines as an example there’s over 60 billion of these sachets etsy sent every year in terms of numbers, how bad is the problem? If you think of the annual production of virgin plastics as approaching about four million metric tons, and we know that the share of packaging is around 40% of that. The rest is packaging of plastics for building and transport. So if you look at that packaging segment, about 40% goes to landfill, about 14% is incinerated with or without energy, and about 14% is collected for recycling. And very little of that material is actually collected for closed loop recycling. The remaining 32 percent is considered as leakage, so we don’t really have any tracking available to know where it’s ended up. So that’s why the situation is quite bad. But as i said we have the technology, and we also have a lot more political will than we had ten years ago, to solve the problem, and on top of that indeed plastics has significant benefits particularly, low carbon footprint, pound for pound plastics, and the ability to produce a lot of packaging that is lightweight from a carbon perspective much better. But we really need to get that material back and we need to recirculate it so it does start with a design change that if you’re going to use plastics, you must stick with some standard plastic for example, packaging types so that we can deal with fewer colors, fewer polymer types, fewer mixed plastic items that are more difficult to recycle, and then when we have a more streamlined approach to design, that’s where we need to start setting up the systems like we talked about as holistic systems to get them back to collect more and to sort more. Because ultimately that’s where the failings are. We are not collecting enough back, and we’re not sorting it into the streams where we can recover those plastics and put them back into new materials.
Mithu: So, Clarissa you mentioned that 14% of the waste is actually collected for recycling. Globally how much of that actually gets recycled?
Clarissa: What you’re talking about is one of the losses that occur from the point of where you’re collecting it, let’s say from someone household doorstep to the point where it ends up getting melted and made into something new. The estimates are on average about 25% at the low end to 50 or even 60% at the high end depending on the sorting technology depending on the method of collection depending on how dirty the material was when you collect it, we believe very strongly that those loss rates should always be factored in when we’re looking at measurement and we’re looking at understanding what does 14% collected for recycling actually mean? We need to factor in the fact that there’s a bunch of losses with our current measurement system, but I can say that in Europe at least, the government of the European Union is working to change how we calculate so that our collection for recycling is a bit more accurate in terms of what actually gets recycled.
Mithu: And what happens to the rest of it then?
Clarissa: Well, the rest is depending where in Europe a lot of it is going to incineration so energy from waste and yes there’s definitely a benefit to getting some energy out of plastics. But they’re also some significant pollution associated with waste to energy facilities. And frankly, it’s a big loss of the energy that was embodied in the plastic in the first place. You know plastic is a carbon intensive material extracted from oil. It contains a lot of embodied energy, and the minute that we don’t recover that through recycling, getting the material back in its totality and we get only a fraction of it in terms of energy, there’s a huge loss there so it’s actually a very inefficient way of dealing with plastics. We would be far better to get that material back and recycle it. In North America the majority of it would go into a landfill, so in North America it’s more land filling in Europe, it’s a little bit of both incineration and landfilling but shifting out of landfill.
Mithu: Can you take a moment Clarissa, and explain what embodied energy is?
Clarissa: Yes, so embodied energy represents the energy that it took to produce that particular product or package. let’s say you’re dealing with a plastic bottle. embodied energy represents literally the jewels or the BTUs British Thermal Units, of energy needed from cradle to grave, literally what did it take to extract the material to crack the plastic, to extrude the plastic, and blow the plastic into a bottle there’s a whole series of energy inputs. and with all energy inputs you have emission outputs depending on the type of energy that you’re using but you’ll still have emission outputs so when we talk about embodied energy, we don’t only look at a plastic bottle and say, OK this is a 30 gram plastic PET bottle, we can say it’s a 30 gram plastic PET bottle that required this much energy to produce it. And therefore, we have to think about it in terms of reducing our reliance on energy so when you look at a plastic bottle and you want to find a way when you’re making the next plastic bottle to not have to use so much energy the smartest way is to take all the embodied energy from the first bottle melt it with not a lot of energy and make a new bottle of it. When we talk about embodied energy it’s all in the context of with energy can we save, applying methods and understanding what the implications are of the lifecycle of energy saved and that’s how we approach these things we look at materials we look at them from where did they come from and how much energy went into the extraction of the virgin materials to make that final product?
Mithu: OK, that makes sense, so we’re talking about energy. What about the energy it actually takes to recycle and here of course we’re talking about the carbon footprint of transportation shipping and processing materials like metal and plastic? Is it really worth the effort and the cost?
Clarissa: It is. It is absolutely worth it and as I said with the embodied energy when you’re looking at is it really worth it. If we didn’t recycle, what would we do we would have to go and extract virgin inputs to make virgin materials to make for example that plastic bottle the energy required to, in raw material extraction and transportation and manufacturing, is significantly more than it is to take something melted down and repurpose it. As an example, aluminum is a perfect example you require only 5% of the energy to recycle and aluminum can then you would if you were to make a virgin can. So, you’ve got a 95% reduction in energy input there, and that also means pollution outputs. With plastic it depending on the type you’re looking at about a 50-50 so again, huge huge energy savings as a result of recycling. Yes, recycling requires energy but it requires a lot less then if we weren’t recycling.
Mithu: Thanks for listening. This was the first part of our conversation with Clarissa Morawski, CEO from Reloop. For more information visit reloopplatform.org, tomra.com or subscribe to this podcast.