“Implementing a Sustainable Circular Economy for Plastics”

April 1, 2022
Dr Fatima Hafsa


Plastic is a valuable part of the consumer economy, but it creates negative environmental externalities throughout its lifecycle. To reduce these effects, a sustainable circular economy is needed, where more plastic is diverted from landfill or environmental sinks through reduction, reuse, recycling, or composting, while addressing social needs. Although many different stakeholders (industry, academia, policymakers) are calling for a sustainable circular economy for plastics, globally, less than 20% of plastic is recycled with no data on reduction and reuse.

In this dissertation, a mixed methods approach is used to suggest how different organizations related to the plastic and waste management industry can implement a sustainable circular economy. The first essay identifies how firms across the plastic value chain and policymakers can innovate to adopt a sustainable circular flow. A systematic review reveals over 300 examples, which are used to create a material flow typology. The findings summarize five critical points of innovation and indicate that innovation adoption is low. More concerted and collaborative efforts are needed to improve innovation adoption and there is a need to shift innovation focus from resource efficiency to sustainability.

The second essay analyzes the economic feasibility of mechanical recycling. U.S. plastic recyclers’ price signals are studied to generate evidence for favorable recycling policies. A hedonic analysis reveals recyclers preferences for recyclability – plastic properties that enable recycling. Results confirm the findings from the first essay. Mechanical recycling is only profitable, when firms across the plastic value chain play their part in circularizing plastic. Results also show that adequate recycling infrastructure and absence of virgin plastic play a critical role in enabling recycling. These results point to a need for policies that enable recycling infrastructure, reduce virgin plastic, and facilitate recycling at each of the five critical points.

In the third essay, the role of governments purchases in enabling a circular economy, is studied. As the largest purchasers in a market, governments can signal a large demand for circular products and services, however public administration literature has paid limited attention to it. Since government purchasing is an administrative function, this is a critical omission. A theoretical framework is created to fill the knowledge gap, which suggests how governments can use sustainable public procurement to achieve a circular economy. A systematic literature review of the top ten public administration journals over 32 years reveals no attention to circular economy. A subsequent content analysis indicates critical knowledge gaps and the potential for important sustainable public procurement research. In the past scholars have focused on a handful of societal groups, ignoring others. To approach a sustainable circular economy, equity in research is critical.

Presentation Slides