The case for rethinking plastic packaging
Plastics were high on the agenda at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Switzerland earlier
this year. The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics was authored by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, using analysis from McKinsey and Company and looked at what may happen if circular economy principles were applied to plastic packaging flows on a global basis.
The report found plastic production has surged – 15 million tonnes in 1964, to 311 million tonnes in 2014 and is expected to double again within 20 years. Plastic packaging is likely to remain the largest application, accounting for 26 percent of the total volume of plastics used.
A staggering 95 percent of the material value of plastic packaging is lost to the global economy after a short, first use, representing up to US$120 billion a year.
“More than 40 years after the launch of the first universal recycling symbol, only 14 percent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling,” the report says. “When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only five percent of material value is retained for a subsequent use.
“Plastics that do get recycled are mostly recycled into lower-value applications that are not again recyclable after use. The recycling rate for plastics in general is even lower than for plastic packaging, and both are far below the global recycling rates for paper (58 percent) and iron and steel (70 to 90 percent).”
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has valued plastic packaging’s ‘negative externalities’ at around US$40 billion, saying at least eight million tonnes of plastics leak into
the ocean. “Which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute,” the report identifies. “If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050.”
Indeed, by 2050, there will be more plastics (by weight) than fish in the ocean. So, where to from here? How can we develop a more effective recycling system and lessen the reliance on virgin materials (usually from petrochemical sources) to develop plastic products?
“Today’s plastics economy is highly fragmented,” the report says. “The lack of standards and coordination across the value chain has allowed a proliferation of materials, formats, labelling, collection schemes, and sorting and reprocessing systems, which collectively hamper the development of effective markets. Innovation is also fragmented.
“The development and introduction of new packaging materials and formats across global supply and distribution chains is happening far faster than, and is largely disconnected from, the development and deployment of corresponding after-use systems and infrastructure. At the same time, hundreds, if not thousands, of small-scale local initiatives are launched each year, focused on areas such as improving collection schemes and installing new sorting and reprocessing technologies.
“Other issues, such as the fragmented development and adoption of labelling standards, hinder public understanding and create confusion. In overcoming these drawbacks, an opportunity beckons: using the plastics innovation engine to move the industry into a positive spiral of value capture, stronger economics and better environmental outcomes.”
The report’s overarching vision is that plastics never become waste. “Rather, they re-enter the economy as valuable technical or biological nutrients. The New Plastics Economy is underpinned by and aligns with principles of the circular economy. Its ambition is to deliver better system- wide economic and environmental outcomes by creating an effective after-use plastics economy, drastically reducing the leakage of plastics into natural systems (in particular the ocean) and other negative externalities, and decoupling from fossil feedstocks.”
The authors of the report discovered that even under today’s conditions, with the technological advances currently in the market, it is possible to partially realise these ambitions.
“One recent study found, for example, that in Europe today 53 percent of plastic packaging could be recycled economically and environmentally effectively. While the exact figure can be debated and depends upon, among other things, the oil price, the message is clear: there are pockets of opportunities to be captured today – and even where not entirely feasible today, The New Plastics Economy offers an attractive target state for the global value chain and governments to collaboratively innovate towards.”
CREATING THE AFTER-USE PLASTICS ECONOMY
Crucial to any recycling opportunity is creating an after-use market for renewably-sourced feedstock. The report recommends a number of key initiatives:
■ Radically increase the economics, quality and uptake of recycling. Establish a cross- value chain dialogue mechanism and develop a Global Plastics Protocol to set direction on the redesign and convergence of materials, formats and after-use systems to substantially improve collection, sorting and reprocessing yields, quality and economics, while allowing for regional differences and continued innovation. Enable secondary markets for recycled materials through the introduction and scale-up of matchmaking mechanisms, industry commitments and/or policy interventions. Focus on key innovation opportunities that have the potential to scale up, such as investments in new or improved materials and reprocessing technologies. Explore the overall enabling role of policy.
■ Scale up the adoption of reusable packaging within business-to-business applications as a priority, but also in targeted business-to- consumer applications such as plastic bags.
■ Scale up the adoption of industrially compostable plastic packaging for targeted applications such as garbage bags for organic waste and food packaging for events, fast food enterprises, canteens and other closed systems, where there is low risk of mixing with the recycling stream and where the pairing of a compostable package with organic contents helps return nutrients in the contents to the soil.
Circular economy manager for Netherlands-based global science company DSM, Lukas Hoex says the company has been surprised by the speed with which the sharing economy has grown. He believes it has opened up numerous new business opportunities.
“Besides cautious use of resources in production, we now need to focus on keeping resources in the economy for as long as possible and at the highest possible value, simply because that will improve the bottom line. If we can add more value while at the same time reduce the environmental burden, I do not think that it would affect our performance.”
DSM is experimenting with bio-based plastics. “We do not know yet which type of plastic will prevail in the future: biodegradable plastics (made from natural materials), biodurables (which are also derived from organic flows and that are not degradable, but are recyclable together with traditional plastics) or the current plastics made from petroleum,” Hoex says.
But whatever develops, the report presented to the WEF says a concerted global effort is required to be able to establish a ‘New Plastics Economy’. It recommends the establishment of an independent coordinating vehicle to drive the initiative in a collaborative way across industry, governments and non-governmental organisations.
“Consumer goods companies, plastic packaging producers and plastics manufacturers would
play a critical role, because they determine what products and materials are put on the market,”
the report states. “Cities control the after-use infrastructure in many places and are often hubs for innovation. Businesses involved in collection, sorting and reprocessing are an equally critical part of the puzzle.
“Policy-makers can play an important role in enabling the transition by realigning incentives, facilitating secondary markets, defining standards and stimulating innovation. NGOs (non-government organisations) can help ensure that broader social and environmental considerations are taken into account. Collaboration would be required to overcome fragmentation, the chronic lack of alignment between innovation in design and after-use, and lack of standards, all challenges that must be resolved.”