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Thomas Schueneman headshot

The New Plastics Economy: Thriving in a Plastic World


Forty-nine years ago, on Dec. 22, 1967, "The Graduate" opened in movie theaters to rave reviews. Not only was the film a hit, but it also went on to become a cultural signpost of a generation and a historical record of the times.

Part of that record was a brief bit of dialogue, the meaning of which is discussed to this day:

Mr. McGuire: “I just want to say one word, are you listening?”

Benjamin Braddock: “Yes, sir”

Mr. McGuire: “Plastics”

This brief exchange lent that one word -- plastics -- multiple layers of meaning.

Invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869, synthetic plastic -- then called celluloid -- was hardly new in the late ‘60s. Nor was the depiction of it as representing everything cheap and artificial: a conveniently packaged symbol of all that young Benjamin Braddock’s generation rebelled against.

For Mr. McGuire, plastics was the future, a straight-line trajectory of growth and prosperity. Earnest young men looking for a promising career in upper-middle-class America, like Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock, would do well to get into plastics. It was the new economy of plastics, and fortunes could be made.

Half a century on and we live at the apex of Mr. McGuire’s vision of this new economy, endlessly churning out plastic consumer goods destined ultimately as little more than indestructible junk. Buy, use, throw away, repeat. But the “magical properties” of plastic that make it so ubiquitous also reveal the fundamental weakness of the linear, throw-away culture in which it became the “workhorse material” it is today.

But, of course, there is no "away."

The age of plastics

A paper published earlier this year in the journal Anthropocene suggests plastics are an important geologic indicator of humanity’s impact on the planet.

"Plastics are ... pretty well everywhere on Earth, from mountain tops to the deep ocean floor -- and can be fossilized into the far future," Jan Zalasiewicz, a researcher and professor of palaeobiology, said in a press release.

"We now make almost a billion tons of the stuff every three years."

Even in the late '60s, a century after its creation, the impact of plastics was not yet fully understood. Today we can take a ride on a Boeing Dreamliner 787, one of the most advanced airplanes ever built -- half of which is, by weight, plastic. The digital revolution that ushered in the information age is driven by bits and bytes housed in plastic. Without contact lenses, two tiny disks of precision-cut plastic, I would be legally blind. Plastics are an intimate part of our lives -- permeating our society, the global the economy and the natural environment.

If Mr. McGuire held forth on the promise of plastics in the 20th century, Zalasiewicz’s research warns of its perils in the 21st.

How, then, do we reap the benefits of Mr. McGuire's plastic world without drowning under the weight of its own excess?

The New Plastics Economy

At the World Economic Forum in Davos last January, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the New Plastics Economy initiative with the report The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics.

Plastic is the “key enabler for sectors as diverse as packaging, construction, transportation, healthcare, and electronics,” the group said in its report.

The initiative maps and quantifies the material flow of plastic through the economy, with analytical support from McKinsey & Co. and input from a spectrum of stakeholders representing cities, business, NGOs and academics. A total of 180 experts and 200 publications were consulted in the preparation of the report. Two key takeaways emerge as the consequence of the prevailing flow of plastic through the economy:

  • Significant economic loss and wasted resources

  • Global environmental degradation from material "leakage" into the environment, particularly the ocean

Plastics production surged from 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 million tons in 2014. That upward growth curve will only continue, with production expected to double within 20 years. As more plastic ends up lost to the economy and fouling global ecosystems, it is now clear that we must find another way to add value and reduce the adverse impacts of such an essential material.

The goal of the three-year initiative is to build "irreversible momentum towards a plastics system that works," Rob Opsomer, lead of the New Plastics Economy initivae at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, told TriplePundit, "... with the ultimate goal to have substantial impact on global plastics flows within the next 10 years."

Implementing this kind of impact requires an evolution in three essential areas of plastics production and handling throughout the value chain:

  • Creation of an effective after-use economy

  • Drastically reducing leakage and other negative externalities

  • Decoupling raw materials from fossil fuel feedstocks

This is an enormous undertaking, given how embedded today's linear, fossil fuel-based plastic production, use, and disposal model is in the global economy. Indeed, the scale of the challenge emphasizes how insufficient the current patchwork of fragmented policies, after-use collection methods, and economic accounting currently in use.
"One thing is clear," Opsomer said. "Incremental change or capturing 'quick wins' is not enough - we need a systems shift, which doesn't happen overnight: hence the three- to 10-year objective."

The initiative is the first effort to integrate a global, systemic approach to the challenge. Of all things plastic, packaging is arguably the most pernicious and is the starting point for a New Plastics Economy.

Packaging, end-of-life and the circular economy

The market for plastic packaging has grown by 5 percent annually since 2000. Between 2000 and 2015, plastic grew from 17 percent to 25 percent of the global share of material used for packaging. In 2013, the industry put 78 million tons of plastic packaging on the market, valued at US$260 billion.

Plastic delivers many direct economic benefits and can contribute to resource efficiency. It reduces food waste by increasing shelf life, and its relative light weight reduces fuel consumption for transporting goods.

But there are problems.

Even after more than 40 years since the launch of the first recycling symbol, only 14 percent of plastic packaging is actually collected for recycling. Of the 72 percent left, 40 percent ends up in landfill and fully 32 percent leaks out of the collection system entirely. It is either illegally dumped, mismanaged or not collected at all. That means, according to the report, that 8 million tons of plastic packaging leak into the ocean every year. Imagine one garbage truck full of the stuff dumping its contents into the ocean, one truckload every minute. By 2030 it will be two truckloads; by 2050, four truckloads every minute -- dumping single-use plastic packaging into the ocean.

Estimates indicate that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean, by weight, than fish.

Clearly, current collection and recycling regimes are inadequate. Apart from the environmental degradation is the enormous economic cost of all this lost material. Analysis from the report indicates fully 95 percent of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80 billion to $120 billion, is lost to the economy. Much of it is wasted in a short, single-use, linear flow.

Only 5 percent of the material value of plastic packaging is retained for subsequent use. The material that is captured for reuse is mostly downcycled into lower-valued applications, making the material unavailable for further recycling after use, eventually going to landfill.

A cornerstone of a New Plastics Economy is creating an "effective after-use plastics economy." Not only will this capture material value otherwise lost, but it also increases resource efficiency and provides a direct economic incentive to avoid leakage of valuable materials.

The best place to begin building this after-use economic incentive is with municipal waste collection and recycling programs.

Cities: Where change lives

"Cities play a central role in the transition towards the New Plastics Economy," Opsomer told us. As with many of the global challenges we face, cities are the engine of innovation and change.

Cities are "nutrient concentrators," he explained. "They are the location where almost all plastics in the world are aggregated at any given time. In addition, city administrations are often an active part of the plastics value chain, as in many parts of the world they control the 'waste management' (or post-use material flows) system."

"Finally, cities are innovation hubs where a lot of the innovations in design, materials, business models and technologies required to usher in the New Plastics Economy will come from. Therefore, cities are an important stakeholder group."

Cities like Copenhagen and London's Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) are among the front-running stakeholders working with the initiative to implement and encourage the circular economic principles outlined in the report.

A spokeswoman for the EU parliament told TriplePundit the European Union is also working to create guidelines to help member states deal with "so-called waste package." The EU is "looking at one part of the circular economy cycle: the end-of-life phase of products."

"Plastic plays a role here as well: It is about separate collection and recycling quota for plastics but also for plastic packaging more specifically. Extended producer responsibility is relevant as well. The interface between chemicals, products, and waste legislation is currently looked at in the European Commission," the spokeswoman said.

Opsomer said establishing a "Global Plastics Protocol" will align the efforts of all stakeholders, especially cities and municipal agencies, to establish the main pillars of a circular plastics economy. Such a protocol will provide a common framework while accounting for specific needs localities.
"Exact targets depend on, amongst others, local circumstances and measurement methodologies (which at the moment differ widely in different geographies)," Opsomer explained.

Early adopters like London and Copenhagen serve as models for other cities as they transition their materials flow to a circular economy.

The world without plastic

A world without plastic Is a "world I don't want to live in," Dr. Rolf Halden told a group of journalists, researchers, and scientists at a recent panel discussion plastics in the ocean. Like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's initiative, Haldren said "we have to design a new infrastructure, a ground-up circular economy."

Dr. Halden is director of the Center for Environmental Security at the Biodesign Institute and senior sustainability scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. He said plastics need a "new chemistry" and warns of the dangers of "ignoring end-of-life scenarios" on our health and economy.

Opsomer calls it "moonshot" innovation:

"Innovation is required in all steps of the plastics value chain -- including new materials, product designs, business models and recycling technologies."

We don't want a world without plastics, even it were possible. The challenge and opportunity of a New Plastics Economy is carving a circular path for plastics, indeed for the entire economy, that aligns itself with natural processes, resources efficiency, and economic sustainability.

The meaning of the word implied in a movie 49 years ago remains, in a sense, a cultural signpost. Yet one more indicator of our time as one of transition.

Image credit: Edinburgh Greens, courtesy Flickr 

Infographics used with permission, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Thomas Schueneman headshot

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

Read more stories by Thomas Schueneman