Why an Optimized Plastics Economy is Sustainable
This title may scream fake news to many of you. Yet it is true, and particularly relevant given the latest efforts to ban the plastic straw. A 2016 study found that replacing plastics in packaging and consumer products could raise environmental costs nearly fourfold. This is because strong, lightweight plastics help us do more with less material, providing environmental benefits throughout the lifecycle of plastic products and packaging. The study also concludes that the environmental costs of alternative materials can be lower per ton of production but are greater in aggregate due to the much larger quantities of material needed to fulfill the same purposes as plastics.
Another study demonstrates that substituting plastic packaging with alternative materials would increase the amount of packaging generated in the United States by 55 million tons annually and increase energy use and carbon emissions by 82 percent and 130 percent, respectively. These conclusions do not even take into consideration the benefits derived from plastics well beyond the simple single-use straw.
Plastic is an important and ubiquitous material in our economy and daily lives. It has multiple functions that help tackle numerous social challenges. Light and innovative materials in cars or planes save fuel and cut CO2 emissions. High-performance insulation materials help us save on energy bills. In packaging, plastics help ensure food safety and reduce food waste. Combined with 3D printing, bio-compatible plastic materials can save human lives by enabling medical innovation.
In all fairness, even single-use plastics—admittedly a convenient target for any ban—can deliver greater good by providing us with sanitary conditions for food, beverages, and medical applications. Certainly, it is imperative that we address the deepening environmental problem of marine debris and waste, but what is the most appropriate approach?
As someone deeply involved in understanding the challenge and implementing best practices for producers and processors across the plastic industry’s value chain, I see two options. A material ban is one; however, it implies denying people the beneficial applications of plastics. The other option is to implement optimized waste management systems to collect, sort, and treat the various waste components in conjunction with a global rethink of the plastics economy characterized by innovation, redesign, and harmonization, based on circular economy principles.
I see two options. A material ban is one; however, it implies denying people the beneficial applications of plastics. The other option is to implement optimized waste management systems to collect, sort, and treat the various waste components in conjunction with a global rethink of the plastics economy characterized by innovation, redesign, and harmonization, based on circular economy principles.
In March 2016, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics proposed that applying circular economy principles to global plastic packaging flows could transform the plastics economy and drastically reduce negative externalities such as windblown litter and leakage into the oceans. For the first time, a study offered a vision of a global economy in which plastics never become waste, and provided the concrete steps required. These steps include creating an effective after-use plastics economy, drastically reducing the negative externalities associated with plastics, and decoupling plastics from fossil fuel feed–stocks.
Creating an effective after-use plastics economy is a cornerstone of the New Plastics Economy. We must design products with the end in mind, such that at the end of the product’s lifecycle, there is a plan to repurpose the material.
Action steps here include:
- Radically increase the economics, quality, and uptake of recycling.
- Establish a cross-value-chain dialogue mechanism and develop a Global Plastics Protocol to set a direction on the redesign and convergence of materials, formats, and after-use systems to improve cost, collection, sorting, and reprocessing yields while allowing for regional differences and continued innovation.
- Enable secondary markets for recycled materials through the introduction and scale-up of industry commitments, and/or policy interventions.
- Focus on innovation opportunities with the potential for scale, 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, fast food packaging, and beverage containers.
- Identify products where the pairing of a compostable package with organic contents helps return nutrients in the contents to the soil.
Realizing a drastic reduction in leakage also requires concerted efforts, particularly in three areas. The first area is improving after-use collection, storage, and reprocessing infrastructure in high-leakage countries. For example, the Northern Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is primarily composed of plastic waste originating from economic activity in five Southeast Asian countries. The second relates to increasing the economic appeal of keeping plastics circulating in the economy, thereby encouraging the development of after-use collection and reprocessing infrastructure. When after-use plastic packaging maintains an economic value, it reduces the likelihood that it escapes the collection system, especially in countries with an informal waste sector. The third area is steering innovation investment towards creating safe materials and formats to reduce the negative environmental impact of plastic packaging leakage.
Furthermore, industry needs to decouple plastics from fossil feedstocks to improve its resource productivity. Along with a low-carbon production process, it can contribute to a low-carbon world. Creating an effective after-use economy is key to this decoupling because this allows for a reduction in the need for virgin feedstock. Another critical component here would be the development of renewably sourced materials to provide the virgin feedstock that would still be required to compensate for remaining cycle losses.
In May 2016, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the New Plastics Economy initiative—a bold, three-year project to mobilize the report’s recommendations. As one of its first key deliverables, in January 2017, the initiative published The New Plastics Economy: Catalyzing Action, representing a logical next step to the 2016 report by proposing three original contributions to the transition towards the New Plastics Economy:
- Three transition strategies—redesign and innovate, reuse, and recycle—for three major categories of plastic packaging based on their estimated potential for value creation from reuse and recycling.
- A set of priority actions for each category to set a common direction for stakeholders across the global plastics packaging value chain.
- A targeted plan for the New Plastics Economy initiative to catalyze progress on the priority actions.
The 2017 study points out that global momentum for a fundamental plastics rethink is greater than ever. It goes further to say,
Without fundamental redesign and innovation, about 30% of plastic packaging will never be reused or recycled. For at least 20% of plastic packaging, reuse provides an economically attractive opportunity. And finally, with concerted efforts on design and after-use systems, recycling would be economically attractive for the remaining 50% of plastic packaging.
Taken together, these studies illustrate how the system effectiveness of the plastics economy can be increased. By overcoming existing drawbacks, an opportunity presents itself: using the inherent innovativeness of plastics to move the industry into a positive spiral of value capture, stronger economics, and even better environmental outcomes.
This article is part of a series on “solvable problems” within the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Global Engagement Forum: Live takes place this October 10–11, 2018, bringing together leaders from across the private, public, and social sectors to co-create solutions and partnerships to address four urgent, yet solvable problems—closing the skills gap in STEM, reducing post-harvest food loss, ending energy poverty, and eliminating marine debris and ocean plastics. Learn more about the Forum here.