With more than 8 million tons of plastic en- tering the ocean each year, humanity must urgently rethink the way we make and use plastics, so that they do not become waste in the first place. Cheap, light, and versatile, plastics are the dominant materials of our modern economy.
Their production is expected to double over the next two
decades. Yet, only 14% of all
plastic packaging is collected
for recycling after use, and
vast quantities escape into
the environment. This not
only results in a loss of $80
billion to $120 billion per
year to the global economy,
but if the current trend continues, there could be more
plastic than fish by weight in
the oceans by 2050.
Some companies have
started changing their habits. Unilever, for example,
has promised that by 2025,
all its plastic packaging
will be fully reusable, recy-clable, or compostable in a
commercially viable manner. Given that up to a third
of all plastic packaging
items are too small (such as
straws and sachets) or too
complex (such as multima-terial films and take-away
coffee cups) to be economically recycled, achieving these commitments will require a great degree of redesign and innovation.
Such company commitments and innovations are a
step in the right direction. But creating a plastics system
that works will require collaboration among all participants in the plastics sector. The New Plastics Economy,
an initiative led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,
presents a vision for a system in which all plastic materials are reused, recycled, or safely composted in a
controlled way. Public–private dialogue around policy
design must be at the heart of any serious system shift,
and policy-makers have important roles to play in setting a direction for the industry and putting in place
mechanisms to help it get there faster.
Policy-makers may, for example, regulate the use of
Such restrictions need to
certain polymers, other chemicals, or particular ap-
plications of plastic. Such action can be effective, cost
little, and garner public support. Bans on or charges for
single-use shopping bags have, for example, led to rapid
reductions in their use in France, Rwanda, and the
United Kingdom. A few uncommon types of plastic used
in packaging are too expensive to recycle and should
be phased out. A science-based approach is needed to
replace chemicals such as endocrine disruptors that are
found in some plastics and
pose a risk to human health.
be complemented by mecha-
nisms that foster innovation.
Policy-makers can connect
the design of plastic packaging with its collection, sorting, and subsequent reuse,
recycling, or composting by
schemes for drinks bottles, as
in Germany and Denmark,
or by requiring producers
to consider what happens
to their packaging products
after use. A useful policy
approach is extended producer responsibility (EPR),
which makes producers
responsible for the entire
product life cycle. EPR policies have been introduced
in European Union legislation and at the national
level for packaging, batteries, vehicles, and electronics.
Such policies can support good design and improve the
economics of after-use options for packaging materials.
However, the most potent tool for policy-makers remains the setting of a clear common vision and credible
high-level ambitions that drive investment decisions. In
the case of plastics, a crucial pillar of such a policy ambition must be stimulating scientific breakthroughs in
the development of materials that can be economically
reused, recycled, or composted.
Public- and private-sector financial commitments to
combat ocean pollution totaled 7.2 billion euros at the
Our Ocean conference this year alone. The task now is
to harness this goodwill to make sure that plastics stay
in the economy and out of the oceans.
–Dame Ellen MacArthur
Beyond plastic waste
“…creating a plastics
system that works will require
to launch the
works to accelerate
to a circular