The Ellen McArthur Foundation – The New Plastics Economy:
A Sensible, Sustainable, and Pragmatic Approach
“We see a circular economy not just as a corporate responsibility but as a business imperative.”
President, Amcor Flexibles Asia Pacific
Like most global crises, the plastic pollution crisis is multi-faceted one with no easy solutions. Many are quick to tell others that if we all “just do our part” and recycle that the problem will somehow magically go away.
Others say to ban all plastic forever!
Or wait for some massive governmental intervention – or perhaps someone else will invent a new technological invention that will make it all go away.
Perhaps we can put all 5 billion tons of plastic in landfills on a rocket and fly it into outer space?
You’re smarter than all of this, of course, and recognize that any solution will require a globally coordinated effort.
You know there are tens of thousands of dedicated environmentalists, activists, lawmakers, legislators and professionals who both understand, and more importantly, CARE about the gravity of this issue and are desperately working to solve it – with the help governments, NGO’s, businesses, and countless foundations and societies around the globe.
Just like organic chemistry…..there will be no easy answers here.
On this blog and in this post, we take a global and systemic approach to this problem because plastic production and consumption are global – we cannot address this issue in an isolated vacuum.
And perhaps, no foundation understands this better than The Ellen McArthur Foundation.
In their 120-page report, they lay down an extremely comprehensive – yet pragmatic - approach to the plastic pollution crisis and detail all facets of how to reduce waste and better manage the plastic economy.
It’s important to start by recognizing how important plastic is for the global economy, as well as in our own lives.
All the technology we use – from smart phones, tablets, to computers etc. all have several plastic components.
Not to mention our cars, as well as many of the safety features in our cars – all have been made with plastic.
The American Chemistry Council explains, “industrial strength polyester seat belts, flexible nylon/polyester air bags, cushioned foam dashboards, shock absorbing bumpers—are made with reassuringly tough plastics.
Have you noticed that carmakers are increasing their use of plastics throughout vehicles?
One serious reason: many plastics absorb more crash energy than metals in an accident, so the car takes more of a beating… instead of you and your loved ones.”
There are countless plastics that really DO benefit us and make our lives better and safer.
Whether that be firefighter’s protective gear, protective eyewear like sunglasses/goggles, medical devices that increase sterility, safety, and comfort;
the list of beneficial plastic products is endless, and it’s impossible to imagine our modern world without it.
However, it is plastic packaging, representing about 26% of all plastic produced, that is most mismanaged and represents the biggest opportunity for change.
Here’s why we need to especially rethink plastic packaging:
1) In almost all cases, plastic packaging is SINGLE USE. Due to very low rates of plastic packaging recycling (14%) combined with further losses due to sorting, contamination, reprocessing – it is estimated that only 5% is actually retained for a second use!
This is not only an environmental waste, it’s also an economic one. As the Ellen McArthur Foundation report explains, “Today, 95% of plastic packaging material value, or $80–120 billion annually, is lost to the economy after a short first use.”
2) Plastic packaging makes up the greatest share of plastic that leaks into our oceans. There are already over 150 million tons of plastic in our oceans, and at least 8 million tons of new plastic is leaking into our oceans each year. This number is expected to quadruple by 2050 and estimates also suggest by then there will be plastic in our oceans than fish, by weight.
We’ve discussed this in more detail in other blog posts, but we believe ocean plastic pollution and microplastic that results from this is amongst the greatest human, animal, and environmental risks of plastic pollution in general. Plastic packaging is one of the biggest contributors to this crisis.
3) Plastic packaging has a huge, and growing, carbon footprint and also requires a tremendous amount of oil to produce.
The Ellen McArthur Foundation report states, “Over 90% of plastics produced are derived from virgin fossil feedstocks.
This represents, for all plastics (not just packaging), about 6% of global oil consumption, which is equivalent to the oil consumption of the global aviation sector.
If the current strong growth of plastics usage continues as expected, the plastics sector will account for 20% of total oil consumption.”
We could go on and on about the problems associated with plastic packaging, but I think you get the point.
Unlike life-saving plastic technologies that last years, the vast majority of plastic packaging lasts only minutes and is most likely to end up in our oceans.
The best solution to reducing plastic packaging pollution is to create an AFTER-USE PLASTIC ECONOMY.
From an economic perspective, this will reduce ocean leakage of plastic packaging because there will be an economic incentive for second hand plastics.
This concept, if implemented, is really the beginning to a circular economy for plastic – where the very concept of plastic waste doesn’t exist because there is always a secondary market for all plastic packaging.
However, in order to be achieved – we most completely change the structure of our existing plastic recycling process. The best way to achieve this is through more conformity and convergence on formats, materials, and after use systems.
The problem today is there are thousands of endlessly complex and highly customized plastic packaging options that makes sorting, process, and recycling much more expense and time consuming.
This standardization of plastic packaging could be done through industry commitments combined with policy interventions.
The best analogy I can think of is interchangeable parts during the 19th century that was made famous with Eli Whitney’s musket production. Standardization made mass production cheaper and easier - with less skilled workers needed, too.
If all major plastic manufacturers can come to some industry wide consensus, the same could apply for mass recycling of plastic production if we can get plastic producers to create more uniform/standardized plastic packaging vs. today’s highly customized industry with literately tens of thousands of options.
Once standardization has been achieved, recycling will unbelievably more efficient and will be much cheaper to sort and process.
In addition to industry wide standardization, we can also tackle this issue through REUSABLE plastic packaging, and this can be especially more relevant for business to business (B2B) transactions since packaging tends to be in larger quantities with more predictable and steady transactional volume.
Why not put these two solutions together?
Reusable AND standardized plastic packaging!
Due to the organization, time and resources required - this will again be best accomplished through business-to-business market segments.
The Ellen McArthur Foundation also envisions a logistics system that shows available reusable plastic packaging assets in real time that will save businesses time and money. Through significant reuse, it will also significantly cut carbon emissions as well.
The foundation explains, “Reusable B2B packaging can create substantial cost savings, and if used in pooled systems across companies and industries, significant value beyond packaging. In its most advanced form, it could help enable the ‘Physical Internet’
- a logistics system based on standardized, modularized, shared assets. Transitioning to the ‘Physical Internet’ could unlock significant economic value — estimated to be USD 100 billion and a 33% reduction in CO2 emissions annually in the United States alone.”
There will not be one, but rather several interlocking pieces that will make up a collection solution for plastic packaging pollution.
Standardization of plastic packaging as well as reuse (And best when coupled together) will go extremely far in maximizing recycling rates as well as reducing overall consumption.
However, creating a new plastic economy and eventually, a completely circular plastic economy with NO waste – will require a lot more than this.
We believe that public policy must play a role to facilitate change.
To truly It will likely require government intervention to outright ban the most ocean-polluting plastic packaging AND government incentives for reuse, recycling, and biological/biodegradable alternatives.
Here are just a few examples possible future technologies for plastics and alternatives:
When it comes to plastic packaging - Imperfect decisions are better than no decisions, and action is better than NO action.
The Western World must take a lead while there is still time to act. If we can set up a global, standardized and reusable marketplace for plastic producers and consumers alike – hopefully emerging countries like China will follow and participate.
For those historically and economically inclined, think of this similar to a Bretton Woods system for plastic – for decades after World War II, this standardized and agreed upon system of global currency rates helped create international stability.
In each coming decade, tens of millions of million will join the middle class – largely from the developing world and from Asia, South America, and Africa.
They cannot consume plastic, especially plastic packaging, the way we do now – OR the way we have in the past.
Because if business goes on as usual, with no changes………
We are all going to be bankrupt very, very soon.