Plastic is both an extremely useful material and a huge environmental problem. Thirty-two percent of plastic packaging is never collected at all. Upwards of 9 million tons of plastic enters the world's oceans each year (at the going rate, there will be more plastic in the water than fish by 2050). And the environmental cost, including carbon pollution released during production, is staggering. At $40 billion a year, according to the United Nations, it's more than the annual profits of the plastics industry.
A new report looks at ways to mitigate some of this damage. It calls for a circular economy around plastic (a "New Plastics Economy") where more plastic is recycled and reused, there's less reliance on fossil fuel-based feedstocks, more co-operation between companies, government and nonprofits, and more focused efforts at innovation. There's a need, the report says, for "moon shot" research where practical new ideas are developed at scale.
The report was produced by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a U.K. nonprofit, the World Economic Forum, and the consulting firm McKinsey. The former has produced a series of reports on the circular economy (see our coverage here, here, and here). In a rational, non-emotional way, it's shown the huge opportunities from recycling materials more efficiently, designing products for re-use, and re-manufacturing rather than taking virgin inputs, making something, then dumping it when it's no longer wanted.
The new report does a similar thing for plastics, with a focus on packaging. It shows how 95% of the value of packaging isn't captured through recycling and how current reuse efforts are hobbled by the complexity of plastic products, and a myriad of formats, labeling, collection schemes, and sorting and reprocessing systems. Innovation in the plastics industry is often fragmented and relatively small-scale, the report says.
"The overarching vision of the New Plastics Economy is that plastics never become waste; rather, they re-enter the economy as valuable technical or biological nutrients," the report says. The aim is to improve after-use economics, reduce leakage into natural systems, and decouple growth in plastics consumption from fossil fuels. Currently, the plastics industry uses about 6% of all oil consumed each year, as much as the aviation sector.
The report calls for more recyclable packaging in business-to-business trade, more truly compostable packaging for food (most so-called packaging needs an industrial composter to be compostable), and an "independent coordinating vehicle" that would oversee collaboration between groups. "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 in order to unlock the New Plastics Economy," the report says.
Plastics today contain numerous material and additive combinations that hamper efforts to get more plastics into recirculation. The report suggests taking out some of these additives, and more research into "super-polymers" that are less complex but still cost-effective and functional. It also calls for a moon-shot type challenge where business and academia identify big ideas with the most practical potential. One of these is to use CO2 to actually make plastic (as in this "shaggy" plastic).
There are lots of things we can do to reduce plastic's harm while retaining its benefits. We just have to start doing it. See more from the report here.