How can we create a world without plastic waste?

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A world where not a single piece of plastic becomes waste, where no plastic ends up in landfill, or in our oceans or rivers is a future that seems a long way off.

However it is exactly this future that is being strived for in a recent report by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company “A New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics”, writes Ryan Hewlett.

The report was launched on Tuesday 19th January at the World Economic Forum in Davos and provides, for the first time, the vision for a global economy in which plastics never become waste. What is more the report outlines concrete steps towards achieving the systemic shift needed to make it a reality.

The report was produced with input from over 40 stakeholders across the plastics value chain, including plastics producers, packaging manufacturers, global brands, retailers, after-use companies, cities, NGOs and policymakers.

As it stands the plastics economy is largely linear. In very simple terms this means that the plastic is produced, then used by the consumer and then thrown away and becomes waste.

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The vision for a “New Plastics Economy” sees the beginning of an economy based on circular principles – in which plastics never become waste, and which delivers fundamentally better economic and environmental outcomes.

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We all know that plastics and plastic packaging are an integral part of the global economy and deliver many benefits. Plastic products appear in almost every aspect of our daily lives and our consumer reliance on the material is ever increasing. To meet the demand the plastics industry has increased in size twenty fold in the last 50 years.

The report found that most plastic packaging is used only once; 95 per cent of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy. Additionally, plastic packaging generates negative externalities, valued conservatively by UNEP at $40 billion.

Given projected growth in consumption, in a business-as-usual scenario, by 2050 oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish by weight, and the entire plastics industry will consume 20 per cent of total oil production, and 15 per cent of the annual carbon budget.

With these facts in mind it is clear then that a very real change is needed. The report recommends a new approach based on creating effective after-use pathways for plastics in order to drastically reduce waste and the leakage of plastics into our oceans, rivers and other natural systems. What is also made clear is the global scale of the situation. It is a global problem that requires global action.

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The report proposes the creation of an ‘independent coordinating vehicle’ to set direction, establish common standards and systems, overcome fragmentation, and foster innovation opportunities at scale.

In line with the report’s recommendations, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation will establish an initiative to act as a cross-value-chain global dialogue mechanism and drive the shift towards a New Plastics Economy. Dame Ellen MacArthur said:

“Linear models of production and consumption are increasingly challenged by the context within which they operate – and this is particularly true for high volume, low-value materials such as plastic packaging. By demonstrating how circular economy principles can be applied to global plastic flows, this report provides a model for achieving the systemic shift our economy needs to make in order to work in the long term.”

The report’s findings are timely: knowledge and understanding of the circular economy among business leaders and policymakers is growing, as demonstrated by the European Commission’s recent circular economy package. By managing to re-route the current flow of plastic waste into a circular economy the benefits can be meteoric; protecting our oceans and natural habitats, impacting on the industry’s consumption of fossil fuels and cutting down on waste.

For more information or to download the report in full please visit: http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/the-new-plastics-economy-rethinking-the-future-of-plastics

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Photo Credit: mbeo from Flickr

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