The New Plastics Economy initiative, which has released its latest report at this week’s World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, provides a roadmap of priority actions for businesses to move towards a circular global plastics system in 2017.


Supported by more than 40 major industry actors such as Unilever, Marks & Spencer (M&S) and the Coca-Cola Company, the report highlights that re-use provides an attractive economic opportunity for 20% of global plastics packaging, while a further 50% could be profitably recycled through concerted efforts on design and after-use.

The remaining 30% of plastic packaging must shift towards fundamental redesign and innovation, or face the reality of never being reused or recycled, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation says.

Dame Ellen MacArthur said: “The New Plastics Economy initiative has attracted widespread support, and across the industry we are seeing strong initial momentum and alignment on the direction to take. The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing action provides a clear plan for redesigning the global plastics system, paving the way for concerted action.”

“We look forward to following the progress of this singular and powerful initiative over the coming years as it stimulates the innovation, redesign and new thinking needed to pave the way towards creating a plastics system that works.”

Catalysing action

The report’s proposals would significantly increase the current 14% recycling rate of global plastic packaging, also expanding on the European Union’s (EU) target for 2025, set at 55% in the body’s Circular Economy Package plans.

The New Plastics Economy study estimates that as much as $80-120bn of plastic packaging material value is lost to the economy due to a linear, take-make-dispose value chain. The 30% of global plastic packaging items destined for landfill, incineration or energy recovery could be re-used through a variety of methods such as material innovation and replacing hard-to-recycle PVC and polystyrene with alternative materials, the report claims.

According to the Foundation, new, innovative delivery models and evolving use patterns are unlocking a re-use opportunity for at least 20% of plastic packaging, worth at least $9bn. Firms are urged to innovate towards creative, new delivery models based on reusable packaging and replace single-use plastic carrier bags by re-usable alternatives.

A harmonised implementation of good practices and standards in packaging design and after-use processes would add an estimated $190-290 of value to every tonne of mixed plastic packaging collected, according to the research, which specifically calls for businesses to develop and deploy innovative sorting mechanisms for post-consumer flexible films, and explore the potential of material markers to increase sorting yields and quality.

Commenting on the report, Unilever chief executive Paul Polman said: “We urgently need to transform global plastic packaging material flows if we are to continue to reap the benefits of this versatile material. This report marks a major milestone, calling out specific actions to capture opportunities for redesign and innovation, reuse, and recycling. It’s now up to us all to get it done.” 

Polman’s thoughts were echoed by fellow New Plastics Economy member and waste management firm Veolia’s chief executive Antoine Frérot, who believes that a concerted effort involving various stakeholders will make systemic changes needed to transition to a circular economy. “Veolia believes that the New Plastics Economy initiative provides an excellent collaborative platform to catalyse the transition,” he said.

“The initiative’s latest report, builds on the findings of the previous report and provides a clear roadmap of priority actions for 2017 to drive progress towards a global plastics system that works: a system that will capture material value and contribute to improved economic and environmental outcomes. Veolia looks forward to its continued participation in these efforts.”  

Circular models

This report arrives a year after the New Plastics Economy shockingly revealed that there could be more plastics than fish in the ocean by 2050. The outlook remains just as bleak on a national level, with research recently showing that two-thirds of all recyclable consumer plastic packaging in the UK ends up in landfill or being sent to incineration, with only a third being recycled or re-used as intended.

But as today’s endorsement of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s latest research highlights, the business community is gradually moving towards sustainable efforts to tackle plastic packaging waste. One recent example came on Saturday, when Unilever committed to ensuring that all of its plastic packaging is fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 as it called on the entire fast-moving consumer goods industry to accelerate progress towards the circular economy.

Meanwhile, retailer M&S has completely phased out hard-to-recycle PVC and polystyrene from its products and packaging. The pledge forms part of the company’s overarching sustainability plan, Plan A, which celebrated its 10th anniversary yesterday.

Writing today in a blog post on the New Plastics Economy research, Plan A director Mike Barry stated the report outlines that “we should all be restless to move faster and with greater scale to secure these economic, social and environmental benefits for all”.

Elsewhere, fellow supermarket giant the Co-op recently became the first retailer to sign up to the ‘Plastic Industry Recycling Action Plan (PIRAP), which aims to increase UK plastics recycling from 32% to 57% by 2017.

Read the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report here.

George Ogleby

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