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Rethinking the future of plastics

Will the oceans contain more plastic than fish by 2050? A new report released by the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation and called "The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics," predicts that if we do not fundamentally change the way we use plastics that will merely be one of the consequences. The report, which will also be discussed at the Davos Summit tomorrow, was produced as part of Project MainStream, a multi-industry, CEO-led global initiative to accelerate business-driven innovation and help scale the circular economy.

Will the oceans contain more plastic than fish by 2050? A new report released by the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation and called "The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics," predicts that if we do not fundamentally change the way we use plastics that will merely be one of the consequences. The report, which will also be discussed at the Davos Summit tomorrow, was produced as part of Project MainStream, a multi-industry, CEO-led global initiative to accelerate business-driven innovation and help scale the circular economy.

Image courtesy winnond/freedigitalphotos.net.
It makes for interesting reading. According to the authors, systemic change can create a ‘New Plastics Economy,’ in which the mountain of plastic packaging that is burnt, buried or dumped into the environment each year, becomes an opportunity, rather than a threat. 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. In other words:

“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.”

While acknowledging that plastics and plastic packaging are an integral part of the global economy and deliver many benefits, the report points out that their value chains currently entail significant drawbacks. Assessing global plastic packaging flows comprehensively for the first time, the report finds that most plastic packaging is used only once; 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy. Additionally, plastic packaging generates negative externalities, valued conservatively by UNEP at $40 billion. Given projected growth in consumption, in a business-as-usual scenario, by 2050 oceans are expected to contain more plastic than fish (by weight), and the entire plastics industry will consume 20% of total oil production, and 15% of the annual carbon budget.

New technologies are unlocking new opportunities in areas such as material design, separation technology, reprocessing technology and renewably sourced and biodegradable plastics. The adoption of reprocessing technologies such as depolymerization has been slow, but in the Netherlands Ioniqa Technologies has developed a cost-competitive process for PET that takes place at relatively low operating temperatures. Also, one of the companies involved in the compilation of the report, for example, is Recycling Technologies, a UK recycling technology company that has developed a commercial solution for plastic waste. Its technology contributes to the after-use plastics economy by converting unsorted residual plastic waste—that is currently disposed of in landfill or incinerators—into a valuable low sulphur hydrocarbon known as Plaxx.

“Our approach utilizes a series of scaled chemical processes to convert residual plastic waste into Plaxx—an ultra-low Sulphur hydrocarbon product. We hope that this will help the UK and other nations achieve the new European circulatory targets and reduce the need to import virgin oil feedstock,” explained Adrian Griffiths, CEO, Recycling Technologies.

The report also notes that biomimicry could inspire the development of new packaging materials. While humans have developed a plethora of synthetic materials, technology is not able to provide the wide range of functionalities and complexity of polymers that nature does with only a limited amount of building blocks. “The precise assembly of natural polymers underlies their selectivities in function, which have been tuned through successive cycles of evolution against an enormous diversity of fitness functions,” write the authors.

“Well-designed molecular structure is also the reason for natural polymers’ exceptional functional properties. Spider silk, for example, combines high strength and elasticity and is therefore a model polymer for development of high-performance fibers. Could any of these examples inspire us to deploy more controlled assembly of synthetic monomers in order to develop new highly functional packaging materials?”

Achieving the systemic change envisioned in this report will require major collaboration efforts between all stakeholders across the global plastics value chain—consumer goods companies, plastic packaging producers and plastics manufacturers, businesses involved in collection, sorting and reprocessing, cities, policymakers and NGOs. The report proposes the creation of an independent coordinating vehicle to set direction, establish common standards and systems, overcome fragmentation, and foster innovation opportunities at scale. In line with the report’s recommendations, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation will establish an initiative to act as a cross-value-chain global dialogue mechanism and drive the shift towards a New Plastics Economy.

The report’s findings are timely: knowledge and understanding of the circular economy among business leaders and policymakers is growing, as demonstrated by the European Commission’s recent circular economy package and associated funding announcements; developing countries are investing in after-use infrastructure; and governments are increasingly considering—and implementing—policies around plastic packaging.

Download the report at: www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications

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