Industry backs plan to recycle 70 per cent of the world’s plastic waste

Industry leaders have backed a global action plan published today (16 January) that aims to see 70 per cent of the world’s plastic packaging reused and recycled, compared to the current rate of around 14 per cent.

More than 40 organisations representing the plastics industry, from chemical manufacturers to consumer goods producers, retailers, city authorities and recyclers, have backed the plan included in the ‘New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action’ report published by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The New Plastics Economy initiative was launched at the World Economy Forum in Davos last year, to highlight the damage that plastic waste is doing to the environment and create a vision of a closed-loop global plastics economy. Its launch report made the now oft-repeated claim that by 2050 the world’s oceans would contain more plastic than fish (by weight) if we keep going as we are now, but also estimated that between $80-120 billion of plastic packaging material value is lost to the economy each year.

Industry backs plan to recycle 70 per cent of the world’s plastic waste
Now, a year on, the initiative has outlined how a solution can be reached,  claiming to offer a ‘clear transition strategy’ for the industry to design better packaging, increase recycling rates and introduce new models for making use of packaging.

“The plan puts innovation at the heart of a strategy that could shift the entire system while unlocking a billion dollar business opportunity”, said Dominic Waughray, Head of Public-Private Partnership at the World Economic Forum. “Alignment along value chains and between the public and private sector is key to this.”

Minor changes could set off positive spiral

The report, created with analytical support from SYSTEMIQ, suggests that 20 per cent of plastic packaging could be reused profitably, through simple changes like replacing single-use plastic bags with reusable products or designing packaging models based on product refills, particularly in the cleaning and personal care sectors.

Considering the findings of the analysis, Dr Martin R. Stuchtey, Professor for Resource Strategy and Management at Innsbruck University and Co-Founder of SYSTEMIQ, said: “Minor changes in material, format and treatment can – in conjunction – make the economics of recycling viable and take us into a positive spiral of higher yields, lower costs and better design. The result will be plastic that remains a valuable material before and after use.”

Another 50 per cent of plastic packaging, the report says, could be profitably recycled if improvements were made to packaging design and systems for managing after its use.

These two elements provide the 70 per cent rate that is put forward by the report, and has been backed by companies including the Coca-Cola Company, Mars and Danone. To address the remaining 30 per cent – the equivalent to around 10 billion bin bags of plastic waste – ‘fundamental redesign and innovation’ of materials and reprocessing technologies is needed.

Industry backs plan to recycle 70 per cent of the world’s plastic waste
This segment of fundamentally flawed plastic waste is made up of small-format packaging like sachets, lids and sweet wrappers; multi-material packaging made of several materials stuck together to enhance packaging functionality; uncommon plastic packaging materials like as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene (PS) and expanded polystyrene; and highly nutrient-contaminated packaging, such as fast-food packaging.

To address all three sections of plastic waste, the report says, design is essential and the entire plastic packaging value chain needs to be involved – from packaging designers at the beginning of the chain to recyclers at the end.

Moving the New Plastics Economy forward in 2017

The focus on the New Plastics Economy initiative over the next year will now be on bringing about the wide-scale innovation needed to move towards the circular vision set out last year.

To this end, the initiative says that it will launch two innovation challenges to ‘ to inspire a generation of material scientists and designers to develop solutions for the 30 per cent of packaging that requires fundamental redesign’, while also beginning to create a set of common standards through a Global Plastics Protocol for packaging design. The initiative is also hoping to use collaborative projects between companies and cities to improve recycling systems.

Finally, a circular design guide, created by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and design firm IDEO, is to be launched at the World Economic Forum this month (17-20 January) to ‘support the shift to circular design thinking and systems perspectives and to inspire innovators, entrepreneurs and designers’.

Commenting on her foundation’s latest report, 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.”

The ‘New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action’ report can be downloaded from the New Plastics Economy website.

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