Plastics circular economy – what exactly does it mean?

Does your head spin when you hear the term ‘circular economy’? Let’s stop – and take a break to explain. Many products in our daily lives are made of plastic. They serve us well when we use them. Yet even after their useful life, they are not simply valueless waste.

Many products can be recycled after they have ceased to be useful and brought back as new plastic products. This saves resources and reduces CO2 emissions.

Thinking ‘in a circle’ from the start

A circular economy requires products that can be recycled after use if it is to succeed. What should the part look like? What does it need to do? And how will it be produced? A product design team thinks about all these questions – before production, of course. This is also the point where the decision is made as to whether a product can be easily recycled after use, depending on the design and the material used.

Use and throw away, OK?

Your food storage container is more durable than a sweet wrapper – but is it also more durable than the robotic arm of a Mars rover? Plastics can have very short useful lives, depending on their intended use, for example potato crisp bags and also disposable syringes. Such products are single-use only for reasons of hygiene and are then discarded. Window frames and sewage pipes, on the other hand, last for decades before they crack.

More than 60 per cent of processed plastics can later be reused as durable products. In addition to everything to do with building a house, these include parts for a smart electric car, mixers or barbecue tongs for the kitchen, a pair of smart sports shoes and high-quality technical parts for industrial and medical equipment. Around 40 percent goes to the packaging sector.

No matter how long they last now, we need to dispose of plastic products properly so they can be recycled.

Your plastics: sustainable circular flow

Collecting, sorting, securing the circular economy

Good waste management is important to ensure that the circular economy “runs”. Plastic packaging belongs in the yellow sack or the yellow bin. The refuse collection service picks them up according to the municipal plan and the waste disposal company then sorts them according to type of plastic. Contamination, for example from metal parts, is filtered out. The more homogeneous and cleaner the plastic waste is at the end, the higher the quality of its later use – which is why good waste separation is so important.

Like a plastic phoenix from the ashes

The recycler gives the pre-sorted plastic waste a new lease of life. But first it is shredded and washed, then melted down and filtered so that it no longer contains any dirt particles. In the next step, plastic granulate is produced again for the manufacture of new products – this is called re-granulate, – and the cycle can start all over again.

Some plastic products already have their own closed-loop systems, for example old PVC window frames.

(Video available in german)


Photo credit: Bacci,



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