More plastic than fish in oceans by 2050, Ellen MacArthur study warns

With environmental issues featuring high on the agenda at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos this week, a new report has revealed that applying circular economy principles to plastic packaging could save up to $120bn for the global economy.

The ‘New Plastics Economy’ report, produced by the WEF and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), provides a vision of a global economy in which plastics never become waste, outlining key action points for the public and private sectors and consumers.


“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,” said Dame Ellen MacArthur, founder of the EMF.

“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.”

Shocking stats

Assessing global plastic packaging flows comprehensively for the first time, the report finds that most plastic packaging is used only once; and 95% of the value of plastic packaging material – worth $80-120 billion annually – is lost to the economy.

Shockingly, the report also discovered that, in a business-as-usual scenario, by 2050, the world’s oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish (by weight), and the entire plastics industry will consume 20% of total oil production, and 15% of the annual carbon budget.

It is for this reason that the WEF and EMF are calling for the development of the ‘New Plastics Economy’, based on a circular plastics value chain that reduces leakage of plastics into natural systems and decouples plastics from fossil feedstocks.

Specifically, the report notes that New Plastics Economy would require “major collaboration efforts” between all stakeholders within the global plastics supply chain, and it proposes the creation of an “independent coordinating vehicle” to establish common standards and systems and foster innovation opportunities at scale.

In line with these recommendations, the EMF has said it will be establishing a new initiative  to act as a ‘cross-value-chain global dialogue mechanism’ and drive this much-needed shift to the New Plastics Economy.

Resource revolution

This report’s findings are particularly timely, following the European Commission’s recent unveiling of the new circular economy package, and considering that environmental issues such as ocean contamination have been a big focus of the World Economic Forum in Davos this week.

WEF’s head of environmental initiatives Dominic Waughray said: “This 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.

“To move from insight to large scale action, it is clear that no one actor can work on this alone; the public, private sector and civil society all need to mobilize in order to capture the opportunity of the new circular plastics economy.”

Read the full New Plastics Economy report here.

Luke Nicholls

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie