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Systemic Limits to Achievement of a Circular Plastics Economy
Aspirations are high in current policy and strategy development on circular economy by governments and industry worldwide. Dutch policy for instance aims at full circularity of resources in 2050. Regional objectives in the North of The Netherlands are even higher, aiming for circularity in 2030. All of this coming from 9% circularity worldwide in 2019. However, these goals are considered to be unrealistic and can frustrate the transition towards a more circular and sustainable society. Fundamental limitations towards achievement of circularity are underestimated systematically. Also, circular economy has a narrower scope than sustainability and can lead to negative rebound effects from a holistic perspective. Thirdly, societal and industrial economic and social requirements can hamper fast transitions. Last, circular processes in value chains, businesses and consumers preferences are complex and interdependent. The research described in this paper assesses the gap between the perfect world of circularity and the reality of working with industry, government, consumers and other stakeholders in the ‘circular plastics’ ecosystem in the North of the Netherlands and Cicular projects in Denmark. The research project is part of the programme ‘Circular Plastics’ in the North of The Netherlands which has a focus on circular product development, improved mechanical recycling and on chemical recycling of plastics from packaging waste. A theoretical framework to assess the gap that exists between wishes and reality is proposed, based on (a) fundamental limitations such as thermodynamic and ecological principles (b) conflicts between circularity and more holistic sustainability requirements (c) societal and macro-economic requirements (d) global sectoral requirement s of plastics and recycling industry and (f) practical requirements of plastic value chains in the North of The Netherlands. The framework is constructed from knowledge in existing literature and information from global national and regional sources and is based on the MDM (Multilevel Design Model). A survey among 20 key stakeholders of the ecosystems, and a review of over 30 projects is used to gather data from the practice of circular plastics in The Netherlands and Denmark over the last decade. Based on the preliminary analysis of the data, the results indicate that full circularity of plastics is not within reach during the next few decades, and theoretically will be very hard to achieve in the long run. The most important uncertainties, potential conflicts and barriers within the different levels of the system are identified, as well as drivers towards transformation and incremental change. Systemic solutions for this, and a reframing of the current strategies, policies and institutional narrative regarding Circular Plastics are proposed. The demonstration projects in the North of The Netherlands and in Denmark show that common-sense circular design and business cases are possible, usually referred to as ‘realistic circular’. These successful, partly plastic materials oriented pilots go far beyond regular recycling and involve for instance life time extension via high-tech monitoring, new maintenance models and new service approaches, as well as reuse via technology upgrading.