Changing the plastics ecosystem with unique data model

Opinion 20.02.2020

To take the right actions, you need to know the real numbers and see the big picture. With help of a unique data model of packaging plastics, Smart & Clean Closed plastic circle program is able to make significant changes to plastic circulation in the Helsinki Capital Region. The changes enable reaching reutilization of packaging plastics up to 80%.

We all agree that our increasing plastic problem requires bold moves. Plastic, especially packaging, has a bad brand, and it’s not hard to see why. Urged on by citizens and customers, the governments, established companies and startups are contemplating and acting on the problem.

But it is difficult to define and realize meaningful changes in the public-private ecosystem environment. If the required changes and their impacts are poorly understood, there is a risk of misplaced efforts. The problem is, as so often, human intuition. We tend to focus our efforts on the things we’ve seen or read about, disregarding the real numbers or the big picture. This is especially easy in those cases where we do not have any reliable numbers or are not able to understand the big picture.

This is where data and modelling offer a solution. In order to create a tangible change in the Helsinki metropolitan area plastics ecosystem, Smart & Clean and Taival Advisory have created a dynamic model to estimate the overall volumes of packaging plastic across all parts of the operational ecosystem, from raw material import to collection and recycling. The objective of the model is to be able to explicitly demonstrate what actions are needed across the ecosystem in order to realize the EU objective of 50 percent packaging plastic circulation by 2025. The model shows that by following the principles of circular economy – by collecting, separating and processing plastics into new products – we can reach reutilization rates of over 80 percent for packaging plastics.

The data in the model is based on various studies, research materials and reports and is modelled as a value stream so that the output from one activity – such as plastics packages production – ends up as input to other activities. The end result provides a way of analyzing the whole ecosystem and its dynamics in one interconnected set of numbers. The tool also allows for what if -type scenario building to model future events, such as adding new recycling facilities, to try and assess what actions would realistically enable Helsinki metropolitan area to reach its Closed plastic cycle targets.

In the future the tool and the method can be used to even more complex interactions by expanding it to various directions e.g. to different types of plastic, to other recyclable waste, by feeding individual company data or by adding financial flows. And if the interface is gamified, the tool can be also used for brand building or educational purposes.

The key learning though, is simple. By defining, modelling and simplifying the complexity we can commit public sector parties, companies and consumers to circular economy actions, to believe in them and to find their active roles in ecosystems. And at the same time, we lift plastics to be a solution in climate crises, rather than being only part of the problem. By circulating all possible plastics as material for new products, we can reduce CO2 emissions by the same amount which 80 000 Helsinki Citizens emit in a year.