Toward a New Plastics Economy? Competing Visions and a Path Forward

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Last month, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) released a report that has the potential to reshape international debates and discussions around sustainable packaging. From the opening paragraphs of the Executive Summary, the report’s authors openly discuss the drawbacks of the “current plastics economy,” including the facts that:

  • Most plastic packaging created is wasted – “After a short first-use cycle, 95% of plastic packaging material value, or USD $80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy.”
  • Nearly a third of plastic packaging winds up in the environment – “A staggering 32% of plastic packaging escapes collection systems…” The report also references previous studies demonstrating that the “countries of Asia account for an estimated 80% of leakage…”
  • The hidden costs of the negative environmental impacts exceed the plastics packaging industry’s profits – The cost of such after-use externalities for plastic packaging, plus the cost of associated with greenhouse gas emissions from its production, is conservatively estimated at $40 billion annually – exceeding the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool.

The report makes the case that our current plastics economy is wreaking havoc with the planet and wasting economic opportunities through predominantly linear flows of materials, where plastic packaging is designed and sold primarily for utility without resource conservation and sustainability in mind. In the current model, 90% of the plastic packaging generated is either wasted (40% landfilled; 14% incinerated; 4% process losses from recycling) or littered/leaked to the environment (32%), leaving a paltry 10% that is ultimately recycled, with much of it being downcycled into lower-value materials and products.

In stark contrast, the report envisions a new plastics economy where plastics “never become waste” and instead “reenter the economy as valuable technical or biological nutrients” in a circular economy. EMF cites three foundational system-wide interventions to achieve it:

  1. Create an effective after-use plastics economy. The EMF cites this first recommendation as being the most immediately impactful and proposes a plan, including forming a global plastics protocol to “set direction on the redesign and convergence of materials, formats and after-use systems;” promoting stronger secondary markets for collected materials; and exploring “the enabling role of policy.”
  2. Drastically reduce the leakage of plastics into natural systems and other negative externalities, and
  3. Decouple plastics from fossil feedstocks, through the increased use of recycled plastics and renewably-sourced materials as feedstocks for new plastic packaging.

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Regarding the second recommendation to address the staggering figure of 1/3 of all plastic packaging winding up in the environment, the EMF cites the challenges of addressing the problem with improved waste management alone. “The expected reduction of global leakage (45% by 2025 in a best-case scenario) would be neutralized by the annual growth of plastics production – currently around 5%.” In addition to creating an effective after-use plastics economy, which would help disincentivize leakage, EMF cites the “need for innovation towards truly bio-benign materials” to address the design failure of using packaging that’s designed to last an instant with materials designed to last for centuries.

One would expect this kind of analysis and vision from an environmental advocacy group or consortium like Greenpeace or NRDC. However, what makes these statements so powerful is that they are coming from a primarily corporate-funded think tank. Founded in 2010, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is convening powerful business interests around the shifts necessary to create a circular economy, where waste is eliminated in favor of sustainable material flows of biological and technical nutrients – e.g. “cradle-to-cradle” for today’s world.

The report was funded in part by Unilever, the world’s third-largest consumer goods company as well as by Indorama, an international plastics manufacturer. It was underwritten by EMF’s Project Mainstream, which includes nine global companies involved in waste management, materials, plastics, petrochemicals and consumer / commercial products. It also includes interviews and participation from dozens of major companies, including Dow, Dupont, Amcor, Coca-Cola, Natureworks, Ikea, Nestle, Kimberly-Clark, Suez and Veolia.

Let’s contrast this with the recently-released report from the Ocean Conservancy (OC), which lays out another vision for how to address the overwhelming plastic pollution in Asia. In the report recommendations, the OC proposes four overarching strategies:

  1. Expand service collection and ultimately increase waste-collection services, increasing waste collection rates from 40% to 80% across much of Asia.
  2. Close leakage points within the collection system, including eliminating transport losses and shutting down open dump sites, particularly near waterways.
  3. Treat waste by using gasification or incineration with energy recovery.
  4. In areas with low waste density, manually sort waste to extract for recycling the high-residual-value waste, and convert a significant portion of low-value plastic to RDF (“refuse-derived fuel” consisting of compacted plastic pellets to be burned in industrial/commercial boilers).

While the OC report makes a compelling case that measures must be undertaken immediately to “stem the tide” of plastic pollution in Asia, and we whole-heartedly agree with expanding collection and closing leakage points, the latter recommendations are in direct opposition to the creation of a circular economy based on zero waste principles.  Unfortunately, these recommendations are largely in line with what the plastics industry wants as well.

Because plastics manufacturers are producing an ever-increasing array of lower-value materials, including multi-material packaging, it is easier and less-costly to collect these materials and burn them then go through the challenges of developing after-use markets and recycling infrastructure, especially in Asia and the Global South. Similarly, burning plastics allows these companies to continue to develop and proliferate single-use disposable plastic packaging, sustaining the demand for new plastic production to replace all the materials “going up in smoke.” It’s part of an unholy alliance between the plastics industry and the waste incineration industry, which has struggled against widespread community opposition to the development of new incinerators (of various kinds) in the Global North.

Both industries see a huge opportunity to “kill two birds with one stone” by advancing waste incineration in Asia under the guise of preventing plastic pollution. Several public-interest groups have pointed out potential influence from the plastics and waste incineration industries on the report recommendations as the American Chemistry Council, Dart Container Corp, Dow Chemical, Amcor and Covanta are partners in the OC’s Trash-Free Seas Alliance.

In response, the environmental health and justice movements in Asia (joined by their counterparts in the Global North) are mobilizing against these recommendations and toward a zero waste future for Asia. Our friends at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives have documented this vision and transition in On the Road to Zero Waste: Successes and Lessons from Around the World.

We believe what’s needed now is to unite the circular economy vision from forward-thinking businesses with the zero waste vision from activists and community leaders around the world. Working together, these constituencies have the power to harness diverse interests to create and sustain a new plastics economy built around circular economy and zero waste principles.

Achieving this vision means shifting the way we currently design, use and manage plastics so they benefit humankind without causing the problems they’re creating today. In addition to the three principles laid out in the EMF report around developing an effective after-use plastics economy; reducing leakage/environmental impacts; and decoupling plastics from fossil-fuel feedstocks, it also includes the OC’s recommendations around expanding collection infrastructure and closing leakage points in Asia.

Furthermore, it involves reducing the use of plastics for certain applications (especially single-use disposable items), investing in zero waste strategies and infrastructure (including reuse, recycling and composting), innovating to develop better and safer materials, and shifting consciousness to create a culture of stewardship instead of waste. It will take massive investment and harmonization around design, manufacturing, infrastructure and outreach. Of course, the money has to come from somewhere.

Not surprisingly, we think that the consumer goods and food service companies, who make the decisions about how to package and serve their products, need to be financially responsible for the downstream impacts of the plastic they put into the marketplace. Ultimately, they should be responsible for financing the infrastructure and systems to create the new plastics economy. This can be accomplished by states and countries passing extended producer responsibility legislation for packaging, which should include provisions around performance (like target recycling rates and container deposits), outreach and education, and provisions that support community-based zero-waste and litter prevention/mitigation efforts. (UPSTREAM is working on legislation in several states this year).

The recent reports from the Ocean Conservancy and Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation have helped to elevate the environmental impacts of plastics amongst industry, policymakers and NGOs worldwide. Increasingly, many leaders across sectors know we need to develop stronger networks and aligned strategies to drive innovative approaches for systems change. In order to move beyond “small-scale and incremental improvements,” the EMF recommends developing a global collaboration initiative “driven by joint, urgent, collaborative initiatives across industries, governments and NGOs” and coordinated by an independent organizing vehicle.

The challenge will be to harmonize efforts across sectors and build toward a united vision for a new plastics economy grounded in circular economy and zero waste principles, with the backing of NGOs, governments and forward-thinking businesses around the world.

About UPSTREAM: UPSTREAM is a US-based environmental organization dedicated to creating a healthy, just and sustainable society by addressing the root causes of environmental harm. Our mission is to advance sustainability, end plastic pollution and reduce climate disruption through product-focused environmental policies. We primarily act as a solutions-oriented policy and strategy think tank, and as conveners and network-builders around environmental issues related to products and packaging. As part of this approach, UPSTREAM is convening North American NGOs to align around shared strategies that can scale up activities to drive changes in the systems causing plastic pollution through our Plastic Pollution Policy Project.

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