When it comes to tackling ‘the plastics problem’, a common theme is that we’ll try to use a bit less and recycle a bit more. While it’s generally agreed that this is important, today industry leaders have announced their support for a more positive vision, one that chooses innovation and creativity rather than simply trying to eradicate plastics. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with analytical support from SYSTEMIQ release the follow-up to the 2016 New Plastics Economy report, published this time last year at the same event.

The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action is endorsed by something of a who’s who of the plastics value chain. Support has come from the CEOs of Novamont and Dow Chemical, working at the chemistry and manufacture phase, from Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, and other voices from Coca-Cola, Danone, MARS, M&S and Carrefour at the brand and retail end. Leaders of Veolia and Suez also praise the report recommendations, acknowledging the role that resource management companies will need to play in re-thinking plastic flows. Another important set of stakeholders involved are the regions and cities that concentrate the most of our plastic stuff, with London, Phoenix, Flanders and Scotland represented. Coming full circle, IDEO CEO Tim Brown represents the crucial design phase.

It’s little wonder these stakeholders are taking new action on the plastics problem. That first New Plastics Economy study in 2016 made headlines with the shocking prediction that the world’s oceans could contain more tons of plastic than fish by the year 2050. Behind that statistic was more detailed research, and the analysis provided the first comprehensive assessment of global plastic packaging flows. The New Plastics Economy report found that 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy after one short use. Now more than ever, there’s greater understanding of the risks plastics pose to natural systems, and the related opportunity in capturing that lost value.

This time around, the report authors detail an action plan that harnesses the expertise of all these players in the plastics supply chain. Addressing global plastics flows through three main ‘transition strategies’ of redesign and innovation, reuse and recycling, the study identifies actions for retaining the value in plastic packaging and prevent it leaking into natural systems. Of course, not all packaging is created equal, and the report applies these different approaches to the various types of plastic all around us.

Small format packaging such as sachets, lids and sweet wrappers, as well as lower volume materials like polystyrene, multi-material ‘layered’ packaging, and nutrient-contaminated containers used for things like fast food account for 30% of the market by weight. These are the segments that need the most fundamental redesign.

Another segment, amounting to 20% of the plastic packaging market by weight, could be replaced by reusable or refillable alternatives. The most well-known example here is surely the reusable carrier bag, but refills are also cropping up more frequently in cleaning and personal care products, and in business to business applications.

A more indirect second use awaits the remaining 50% of plastic packaging, and the Catalysing Action study describes how today’s recycling practices are in need of a serious upgrade.

 

These three strategies of ‘redesign and innovate, reuse and recycle’ don’t roll off the tongue as sweetly as that more familiar trio of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’. What’s happened to reduce? Recent years have seen a number of success stories in this area, most notably the single use plastic bag levies that have become increasingly popular across Europe and America, often with impressive impacts on use reduction. What’s more, campaigns like #breakfreefromplastic – a movement of more than 100 NGOs – have done an effective job of stimulating popular support for the ‘use less’ approach. When these schemes work well, they have the potential to significantly cut down on the amount of plastic waste created. This is vital work.

In that case, why bother updating this common rule of thumb, and what’s distinct about this new approach? Perhaps it boils down the fact that plastic is one of the most versatile and useful materials in our industrialised world. And let’s be sensible about this: most plastic materials themselves aren’t evil. It’s the system in which they are designed, manufactured, used and disposed of that doesn’t work. What’s more, given the projected growth in production mentioned previously, key figures in the industry are questioning whether reduction tactics alone will be enough to address the problems of a system reaching its limits.

With these points in mind, surely we can come up with a better vision for the future than simply aiming to go cold turkey on plastics, and rejecting the benefits that these materials provide? Can we create a more positive narrative around, as the authors say, “innovation, redesign and harmonisation, based on circular economy principles?”

That’s the aim of the new report, which outlines the circular economy approaches necessary to set the world of plastics on a more positive path.

Scraps of plastic like sachets, tear-offs, lids, straw packages, sweet wrappers and pots might seem small, but they account for about 10% of the global plastic packaging market by weight. The challenge is that these items have a tendency to escape collection or sorting systems and have no economic recycling pathway, so there’s a good chance they’ll never be recaptured. So it’s about eliminating the need for them in the first place.

A small design tweak to the ring pull of the aluminium can prevented the loss of material ©️ paketesama – stock.adobe.com

This means going back to the design phase, where seemingly minor tweaks could have a big impact. Think about the aluminium drinks can: until the 1970s, the ring-pull tab was torn off and disposed of. Since then, it’s been replaced by the stay on tab that’s in use today, reducing the chance of materials leakage. This thinking can be found in some plastic packaging too, with the attached flip top caps like those found on ketchup bottles, but the New Plastics Economy researchers say it needs to be more widespread. Again, it’s not about avoiding plastic – it’s about using it in a way that prevents the material from being lost from the system.

More ambitious solutions include ‘disappearing packaging’: tear-off pods that dissolve or leave no packaging behind. Scaling up and improving the capabilities of compostable packaging could also be part of the solution, with the added benefit of increasing the value in organic waste bins.

Efforts to increase reuse mean looking at the ‘inner loops’ of a circular economy, retaining the value of packaging, and the embedded energy, labour and resources such as water involved in its manufacture. Changing the delivery model itself could prevent material loss and offer economic benefits, with dispensers, refills and returnable packaging as possible options. There’s already progress in this area, especially in the personal and home care markets, and companies like Splosh and Replenish have shown how it’s done. After all, products like detergent and soap often contain only a small amount of ‘active ingredient’, so delivering this as a concentrated refill can save not just packaging, but financial and environmental costs in transportation.

Recycling’s still part of the picture, but it needs to be done better according to the New Plastics Economy authors. Rather than leaving recyclers to make do with a cocktail of materials of different types, colours and grades, we should be developing a joined up approach. All the players in the plastics value chain need to be singing from the same hymn sheet, from those designing packaging to the companies handling material in the after use stage. Stakeholders will need to jointly work towards best practices when it comes to packaging formats, polymers used, and the application of additives and pigments – all of which can cause problems in today’s fragmented, end-of-pipe recycling efforts. The Catalysing Action report finds that such coordination could lead to a value improvement of USD 190-290 per tonne of plastics collected, lifting the economics of recycling into positive territory.

The study culminates in detailed action, points to turn this new vision for plastics from report to reality. The wheels have already been set in motion via the New Plastics Economy Initiative, launched in May 2016 by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in collaboration with a broad group of leading companies, cities, philanthropists, policymakers, designers, academics, students and NGOs. It seeks to establish dialogue between stakeholders, create a unifying ‘Global Plastics Protocol’, mobilise ‘innovation moonshots’, and collect the evidence base required to support change. 

While the two options are not mutually exclusive, we have something of a choice before us. We could chase the white whale of a plastic-free future using reduction methods that, whilst absolutely crucial in reducing pollution, won’t necessarily get us to a desirable end state by themselves.

Rather than relying solely on reduction, there is another option: one that harnesses collaborative innovation and creativity to build a new plastics system, enabling us to use these unique, useful and ubiquitous materials in a way that truly works. If the names and organisations behind this new report are anything to go by, the latter is gaining momentum.

The New Plastics Economy initiative is supported by Wendy Schmidt, through The Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fund for Strategic Innovation, as Lead Philanthropic Partner, and MAVA Foundation, Oak Foundation, and players of People’s Postcode Lottery (GB), as Philanthropic Funders. Amcor, The Coca-Cola Company, Danone, MARS, Novamont, Unilever, and Veolia are the initiative’s Core Partners.

 

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The Author

Joe Iles

Joe Iles

I'm Editor in Chief of Circulate and Digital Architect at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

When I'm not discussing the circular economy, I also love talking about digital media and online trends, memes, music, bad films and good beer.

You can find me on twitter @joeiles or email joe[at]circulatenews.org

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