Rethinking the Future of Plastics

A new report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, World Economic Forum and McKinsey, suggests that by applying circular economy principles, the role of plastics and plastic packaging could be reshaped. The report, The new plastics economy: Rethinking the future of plastics, does not come up with a detailed proposal for the restructuring, but it does present a range of thinking to contribute to a new approach.

The data presented in the report can be somewhat stark at times. Global plastics production rose from 15 million metric tons in 1964 to 311 million metric tons in 2014. This is expected to double to more than 600 million metric tons in the next 20 years. Plastic packaging represents a quarter of the total volume of plastic production and around 95% of the value of plastic packaging material. A staggering 32% of plastic packaging escapes collection systems, generating significant economic costs by reducing the productivity of vital natural systems such as the ocean and clogging urban infrastructure. The cost of such after-use externalities for plastic packaging, plus the cost associated with greenhouse gas emissions from its production, is conservatively estimated at US$ 40 billion annually — exceeding the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool. The report indicates that in future, these costs will have to be covered.

The Report suggests that stakeholders need to evolve systems and responses which would address the following:-

  1. Create an effective after-use plastics economy by improving the economics and uptake of recycling, reuse and controlling biodegradation for targeted applications.
  2. Drastically reduce “leakage” of plastics into natural systems (in particular, the ocean) and other negative externalities.
  3. Decouple plastics from fossil fuel feedstocks by, in addition to reducing cycle losses and dematerialising, exploring and adapting renewably sourced feedstocks.

The report was disappointing in that it recognised both the significant environmental impacts of plastics and the expected massive growth of plastic production, yet gave no clear action plans or targets to reduce the environmental impacts in balance to the increased production. Sadly, production and pollution will continue whereas action to minimise the externalities is not prioritised or targeted.