This is part 1 of a two-part series examining the New Plastics Economy, published in 2017 by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation with support from the World Economic Forum. The report can be viewed in its entirety here.
Have you ever imagined a world without plastic?
It’s nearly impossible. Plastics are a ubiquitous material in our modern economy, and it’s no surprise why.
They are versatile, durable, inexpensive, lightweight, high performing, and have brought incredible economic benefit across all sectors of industry.
Plastics also have environmental benefits. Their low weight cuts down on transportation emissions. Their physical properties allow us to keep food fresh longer, decreasing food waste.
Plastic production has increased twenty-fold since 1964, and plastic use is expected to double again in the next twenty years. It’s estimated that 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastics have been produced to date.
Production of virgin petroleum based plastic, 1950-2014 (Photo credit: Ellen Macarthur Foundation).
Plastic’s largest application is in packaging, making up 26% of the total volume. By 2050 it’s estimated that packaging alone will account for 318 million tonnes of plastic each year. This is more than the entire industry today.
Currently, plastic production accounts for 6% of global oil consumption. On top of that, large amounts of other resources such as gas, energy, water, and labour are needed.
Plastic does not break down, but it is easily recycled. Unfortunately, plastic packaging has an inherent flaw – it is almost exclusively designed to be single use or disposable. Its typical useful life is less than a year, but it persists in the environment for centuries (or more).
Instead of recycling all the plastic we produce, we’re simply throwing it away, and with it, the value of materials used to make it.
Only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling worldwide.
95% of plastic packaging material value, worth approximately $80-120 billion US, is lost worldwide each year. Value losses along the recycling chain mean that only 5% of material value is retained for future use.
How many forests would be razed if only 5% of paper (recycling rate of 58%) was recycled? What amount of virgin resources would be required if we didn’t recycle 70-90% of iron and steel?
The losses are staggering, and if only 14% is picked up in our recycling, where’s the rest? If we’re not retaining the value of most of the plastic we create, where’s that value ending up?
An additional 14% of plastic packaging is sent through an incineration or energy recovery process. These processes don’t recover the full value of plastics and are not a sustainable answer to the growing issue of plastic waste. For starters, they do little to promote waste reduction, as a constant supply of waste is required. Incineration still results in value losses, negating the energy and labour used in creating the plastic. It’s also problematic due to the pollutants generated, particularly if proper controls are not in place.
The materials burned in waste-to-energy systems are the same materials that have high recycling value. There are also concerns that low operating costs and large investments in incineration infrastructure can push higher value recycling mechanisms out of the market. In principle, burning trash is not the way to a cleaner future for our environment. To take a product that uses significant natural resources to create and simply burn it when we’re finished with it just doesn’t make sense.
The vast majority (72%) of plastic packaging is simply not recovered.
40% ends up in landfills, where it occupies valuable space and can contribute to groundwater contamination. The remaining 32% escapes the collection system. Yes, almost one third of plastic packaging slips through the cracks and we are now seeing the economic and environmental costs of these negative externalities.
In 2012, CO2 emissions from plastic production were 390 million tonnes. It’s estimated that by 2050, the plastics sector will account for 20% of global oil consumption and 15% of the carbon budget (if we’re to limit the global average temperature increase to 2 degrees).
The external costs associated with plastic production and consumption are mounting. These include degradation of natural systems to acquire virgin resources, ocean pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and health and environmental impacts from plastic chemicals.
Simply put, we cannot continue to rely so heavily on finite stocks of natural resources while also bearing the environmental burdens.
Each year, 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean.
This is equivalent to a garbage truck’s worth dumped in the sea every minute. It’s no surprise that plastic packaging accounts for 62% of all items found in international coastal clean-up operations.
By 2025 the ratio of plastic to fish in the ocean (by weight) is forecast to be 1:3. By 2050, there may be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
These little fragments of plastic do more than just float around and accumulate in oceanic garbage patches. They entangle marine animals and break down into smaller pieces which coat the seabed, float on the ocean surface, and enter the marine food web.
Plastic distribution in the world’s oceans. Plastics can float up to several meters below the surface making accurate measurements of ocean plastic very difficult (Photo credit: Nature).
According to the UNEP document Valuing Plastic, damage of plastics to marine ecosystems is valued at over $13 billion per year. This includes financial losses to fisheries, aquaculture and tourism, as well as clean-up efforts.
Roughly one million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine animals are killed each year, either by plastic entanglement or ingestion. What’s more, we still don’t know how plastics are interacting with terrestrial organisms.
What’s the answer to our plastic problem?
Innovation and improvement efforts show potential, but so far these actions are too divided and uncoordinated to have large scale impact. New packaging materials and formats are being developed faster than the after-use systems required to manage them.
Bio-plastics are hailed by some as a solution to the plastic problem. While these will surely play a part in the future of plastics, they also come with their own challenges. They can take decades to degrade, and can contribute to methane production in landfills.
Plastic product bans have been enacted in some countries, but there are compelling arguments for and against this. For example, plastic bag bans have greatly reduced usage in some jurisdictions; however, plastic bag bans generally lead to increased use of paper bags which have been shown to have a higher carbon footprint.
Logos supporting and opposing plastic bag bans show the lack of agreement on the value of plastic bans (Photo credit: bagtheban.com, hsbsurfrider.org).
Legislative measures such as implementation of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs can have positive effects on plastic recycling. For example, in British Columbia, packaging is covered under an EPR system which funds container recycling programs province-wide. These programs are slowly becoming more widespread as jurisdictions move to shift responsibility to producers rather than consumers.
Innovation, initiatives and legislation are important and can bring about visible changes. But, in order to have significant impact in the face of unconstrained growth of plastic production and consumption, there needs to be a fundamental shift in how we view and handle packaging and other plastics.
The most compelling large scale solution to the plastic problem is transition to a new circular economy for plastics.
A circular economy is one that preserves material value and increases resource productivity. Transition to this model will reduce the escape of plastics into natural systems and other negative environmental costs. Furthermore, it will facilitate decoupling of plastic production from virgin fossil feedstocks.
An effective after-use economy for plastic would create incentive to build collection and recovery infrastructure. Better designed products would have higher after-use value and would be less likely to escape collection. New innovation will produce plastics that are “bio-benign,” and won’t harm the environment if leaked into natural systems.
Under this circular system, plastics never become waste, but instead re-enter the economy as resources.
Could we change our systems to operate so that nothing is wasted? So resources are recycled and reused in a circular fashion, just like in nature?
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with their New Plastics Economy initiative, are setting out to prove this is possible. The foundation works with global partners including business, government and academia. Through education, insight, analysis, publications, communications and systemic initiatives they are building a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.
In Part 2 of our look at the New Plastics Economy we’ll examine the circular economy for plastics, priority actions for plastic packaging and the ways in which innovators around the globe are accelerating the transition to a circular economy.