This is the second installment of our two part series on the ‘New Plastics Economy.’ Click here to read Part 1.
In part one of this series we introduced the current global plastics picture, with a focus on packaging, plastic’s largest application. We ended by introducing the idea of a new circular economy for plastics as the way forward.
The circular economy makes most sense when we compare it to our current economic model. Currently, we exist in a linear economy. We take resources, make products, and dispose of them when they reach their end of life.
The current linear economy relies on extensive inputs of virgin fossil feedstocks, resulting in degradation of natural systems, waste generation, low resource productivity and short product lifespans (Photo credit: Ellen MacArthur Foundation).
In contrast, a circular economy seeks to design out waste and pollution, keep materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.
The circular economy utilizes circular flows of technical and biological materials to be restorative and regenerative by design (Photo credit: Ellen MacArthur Foundation).
The New Plastics Economy hinges on the creation of an effective after-use plastics economy. This system would increase resource productivity, preserve material value and decrease negative environmental effects of plastic consumption. Instead of degrading ecosystems and consuming finite resources for short term gain, we can change the system to build prosperity long-term.
The shift to a circular economy won’t happen overnight. Our linear systems are too entrenched to be altered at the flip of a switch.
So where do we start?
The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action identifies three key strategies to increase circularity of the plastic packaging market. These are priority areas to focus on if we’re to begin the transition to a circular economy for plastics.
1. Fundamental redesign and innovation
At least 50% of plastic packaging items are not reused or recycled. These items are priorities for redesign and innovation.
Small format packaging such as lids and candy wrappers often escape collection and have small reuse or recycling potential. These items must be avoided or fundamentally redesigned to support their reuse and recycling.
Multi-material packaging (e.g. chip bags, wax tetra-paks) often cannot be economically recycled due to the inseparable layers of different materials. Material innovation will provide recyclable or compostable alternatives for these items.
Uncommon materials such as polystyrene (Styrofoam) and polyvinyl chloride should be replaced with alternatives, eventually leaving only a few key materials in use across the market.
Finally, compostable packaging and related infrastructure to process food-soiled packaging must be scaled up.
Reusable packaging was the norm 50 years ago. Over the last half century, single-use, disposable packaging has all but replaced reusable options. We’re at a point now where innovation and societal acceptance are once again supporting reuse as an attractive option.
More than 20% of plastic packaging today has a high potential for reuse. This includes personal and home care bottles, carrier bags, beverage bottles, pallet wraps, and large rigid packaging.
Reusable bags could replace over 300 billion single use plastic bags per year, generating almost $1 billion USD in cost savings.
Innovation in new delivery models using reusable packaging could go a long way in utilizing reuse potential. Furthermore, there is significant room to scale up the use of reusable packaging in business-to-business settings.
3. Recycling with radically improved economics and quality
Because plastic packaging is diverse and continuing to diversify, materials have lower value for recycling and increased recycling costs. After-use systems can’t keep up with production, and recycling processors don’t have reliable access to high quality materials. Volatile markets have resulted in fragile economics for recycling.
A Global Plastic Protocol would provide a core set of standards for plastic design, labeling, collection, sorting, infrastructure, and secondary markets. Global convergence would still allow for continued innovation and regional variation, but would provide alignment across the value chain.
Standards for packaging design formats, materials and additives would improve recycling quality and decrease costs. This would reinforce recycling as an economically attractive alternative to landfill, incineration or energy recovery.
Compatibility of collection and sorting systems and scaling up of high-quality recycling processes would create economies of scale in after-use systems.
New technologies and innovations combined with clear standards for packaging will greatly improve the economics and quality of recycling. These are long term goals, but policy measures such as extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs, carbon taxes, incineration bans and deposit systems could help to trigger progress in the short term.
Advancements in technology, changes in public perception and new legislations are all small parts of a shift to a more circular model. This transition will require widespread partnership between industry, government, and non-governmental organizations. Only collaboration will help overcome the fragmentation of current initiatives.
Around the world, the circular economy is hitting the mainstream. Businesses, governments, and academics are coming up with new technologies and initiatives, paving the way towards a circular economy. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation highlights numerous case studies showcasing the circular economy in action. These range from new bio-based packaging and vehicle plastic recycling to product repair and redistribution programs.
A large part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative is the launch of the $2 million Innovation Prize. This prize awards material innovation and circular business models. The foundation recently awarded $2 million, split between 11 different projects. Among these were several bio-based packaging alternatives, a plastic-free grocery delivery model, a returnable cup system, and others.
The Circular Economy and Big Business
The circular economy is also gaining traction among big-name plastic producers. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently announced that 11 major companies are aiming to use 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging by 2025. This list includes Amcor, Ecover, Evian, L’Oréal, Mars, M&S, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Walmart, and Werner & Mertz. Together these companies represent more than 6 million tonnes of plastic packaging annually.
Is this merely green-washing? Will these companies lead the way in preventing plastic pollution? Time will tell; however, this signals a big step forward in the shift towards a circular economy for plastics. Hopefully this leads many more companies to follow suit. The circular economy won’t work when only a few stakeholders are on board. All the interconnecting companies that form our infrastructure and economy must work together to embrace this new way of thinking.
A simplified sketch highlighting the biological and technical material flows that make up a circular system.
Now is the time to act
The public perception of plastics is changing. Growth of movements such as #breakfreefromplastic, Plastic Free July and the Plastic Pollution Coalition show that there is increasing negative perception of plastics in relation to health and environmental issues. More and more people are beginning to refuse single-use, disposable plastics.
Technologies are also advancing at remarkable rates, in areas such as material design, separation, reprocessing and biodegradable/renewably sourced plastics. These all provide new opportunities to replace our current systems.
Developing countries are in the process of building after-use infrastructure that will serve them in the coming decades, so they are prime targets for development of effective recycling systems.
More and more governments are implementing or exploring legislation for plastic packaging. Several provinces in Canada have Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs in place for packaging, and expansion of these will help cover the costs of effective recycling. The Government of Canada recently announced they are exploring a “zero plastics waste charter” to combat plastic waste and ocean pollution. We are in the midst of a great transformation, one that will define how we leave this world to future generations.
Envisioning a world without plastic indeed sounds impossible. A world without plastic is probably not the answer. The answer instead is to change the system entirely. The answer is an economy in which material flows are circular. One that prevents leakage, regenerates natural systems, retains material value, and provides global economic and social benefit for all.