Patricia DeMarco Ph.D.

"Live in harmony with nature."


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The End is the Beginning- The Case for A Circular Materials Management System

I. Cycles and Systems.

As I sit in my study watching fat snowflakes drift past the window, my mind wanders to the warmer times of summer walking through the protected lands of the Allegheny Land Trust. From the depths of the woods, it is easier to feel part of the web of life that holds all of us. The forest ecosystem moves in a succession of interconnected living things toward a climax community, the equilibrium point where the annual production and import of resources exactly matches the annual consumption and export of resources. It is a self-perpetuating condition where the living systems are in perfect harmony with the supporting physical environment. The ant and the snail are no less partners than the mighty maples or the bear that occupy the climax community, all are interconnected and essential for sustained balance. Natural ecosystems progress through a succession unique to each place toward a climax equilibrium. I wonder how much of the Earth would reach this ideal state absent the perturbations of human activity?

Human civilization has not grown with a balanced advance toward a climax equilibrium that natural systems follow. Rather, we have withdrawn massive amounts of raw material from fossil reserves deep in the Earth and converted that material to trash as rapidly as possible to generate economic advantage. Worse, the way we compute value and economic benefit excludes the intrinsic flow of value vested in ecosystems. The global pollution from plastics discarded after a single use epitomizes the mark of modern society. Wasted material, vested with massive amounts of resources, pile up on the shores, in landfills, in the ocean, and blows around in neighborhoods littered with discarded stuff. 

II. Rethinking Plastic in a Circular System – a discussion of alternative materials that can replace plastics, especially for single-use products, and definitions of the different kinds of bio-plastics.

  • There is much discussion about “Bio-Plastic,” but the term can be confusing. Generally, there are two major classes of plastics: (2)
  • – Thermoplastics are a family of plastics that becomes mold- able when heated and hardened upon cooling. They account for over 90% of the mass of plastics produced.27 The most commonly encountered thermoplastics are PE, PP, polystyrene (PS), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), acrylic, nylon, and PET; 
  • – Thermosetting polymers are plastics that have been irreversibly hardened in a way that prevents melting. Most popular thermosets are used as the matrix in fiberglass, polyurethanes (PUR), vulcanized rubber, and urea-formaldehyde foam.
  • – Bio-based plastic polymers are produced from biomass or by living organisms, and they may or may not be biodegradable. 
  • – It is also possible, but more expensive, to produce biodegradable plastics of petrochemical or mixed origin.
  • However, plastic products usually consist not only of the basic polymer but also different often environmentally damaging additives incorporated into a plastic compound, such as plasticizers, flame retardants, antioxidants, acid scavengers, light and heat stabilizers, fillers, lubricants, pigments, antistatic agents, slip compounds, and thermal stabilizers. Depending on the product, these additives can sometimes account for more than 50% of the mass of the final plastic product. (3) 

III. Build the Regulatory Infrastructure for a Circular Materials System -ways to move toward a circular materials management system and policy recommendations to address the market failures that have caused the inundation of plastic waste. The invisible hand of the market will not solve the failures of the current system of materials management.  We must move from a linear value chain to a circular one, modeling our supply sources, production, use and re-use of materials after natural systems. 

IV. Resources and Citations for further study.

You can read the entire paper with illustrations and references here:

–ReImagine Beaver County

— Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community

— League of Women Voters of PA

— Climate Reality Project

— Breathe Project

are hosting a presentation Bioplastics- Hype or Hope where we will be having discussions about the issue of using bioplastic to replace petrochemical plastic. The events are on March 11 and 25 from 7:00 to 8:30 PM on zoom. Register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bioplastic-hype-or-hope-registration-141427241687?aff=ebdssbonlinesearch