Economy of plastics must go circular, report argues

Economy of plastics must go circular, report argues

The environmental costs arising from the production and use of plastic currently outweigh the plastic industry's global profits, but a “new plastics economy” based on circular principles is possible, according to a new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum.

The report, published 19 January, notes that the cost of greenhouse gas emissions from the production of plastic, and the environmental impact of plastic waste, is estimated at $40 billion (€37 billion) annually – and in reality is probably more – compared to the estimated annual profits from plastic packaging of $26-39 billion (€24-36 billion).

Problems with plastics

Plastic waste is in particular a threat to biodiversity in the oceans, and without action, the weight of plastic in the oceans compared to the weight of fish will increase from a ratio of about 1 to 5 today to 1 to 1 in 2050, according to the report. In addition, the report notes, on business-as-usual trends, production of plastics by 2050 will produce 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and will consume 20% of oil.

Despite the environmental damage that plastic is doing, most plastic (usually packaging) is used just once, and about a third of plastic waste globally is not collected or managed. The throwaway treatment of plastic costs the world around $80-120 billion (€74-110 billion), in terms of lost value from plastic materials, each year.

Circles made of plastic

According to the report, the rigorous implementation of circular economy principles could help to ease the environmental burden of waste plastic. In particular, work is needed to:

  • create an “after-use” economy for plastics by dramatically upscaling the recycling, re-use and compostability of plastic;
  • improve collection and reprocessing to minimise leakage of plastic into the environment, and improve the biodegradability of materials as a strategy to deal with any plastic that does enter the environment;
  • move plastics production towards low-carbon methods in which the need for virgin feedstock based on fossil fuels is reduced.

Achieving these aims would require major political and market initiatives, the report argues, including the establishment of global protocols, “moon-shot” scale innovation, more research to understand plastics flows, and creation of a plastics “vision” for policymakers.

Dominic Waughray, a member of the executive committee of the World Economic Forum, said that the report “demonstrates the importance of triggering a revolution in the plastics industrial ecosystem, and is a first step to showing how to transform the way plastics move through our economy.” The public and private sectors, as well as civil society, would need to act in concert to initiate large-scale action to overhaul the way the world currently uses plastics, Waughray added.

The report, The new plastics economy: rethinking the future of plastics, is available at http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/the-new-plastics-economy-rethinking-the-future-of-plastics

European Commission website on the Circular Economy: