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What Is the New Plastics Economy, and Why Does It Matter to Business?

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Energy & Environment
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Last month, more than 290 organizations and business leaders came together in support of something called the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. That's a lot of firepower to assemble in support of one goal. By way of comparison, there are only 28 member states in the European Union, 50 states in the United States, and 193 countries in the United Nations.

The raw numbers indicate one essential element of interest in terms of corporate social responsibility: whatever the New Plastics Economy is, it's good for business.

With that in mind, let's take a closer look at the New Plastics Economy and one of its charter members, Johnson & Johnson.

What is the New Plastics Economy?


The New Plastics Economy comes under the umbrella of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation—a charitable foundation dedicated to the circular economy, in which waste materials are reused in perpetuity—with the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fund for Strategic Innovation as a leading philanthropic partner. It is a waste-reducing initiative that begins with a keen awareness of the challenges involved in kicking the global plastic habit:
Plastics are fundamental to our everyday life. Yet, they are one of the most wasteful examples of our existing linear, take-make-dispose economy. With 8 million tons of plastic entering the ocean each year, we urgently need to rethink the way we make, use and reuse plastics.

To re-emphasize, the immediate goal is to reduce plastic waste, not to eliminate the use of petro-plastics. That may seem an overly modest goal, but it does focus attention on the urgency of reducing waste. Innovating the world's way out of petroleum dependency is a long-term goal.

Only 14 percent of plastic products are currently recycled, according to a 2017 report from the New Plastics Economy. Experts with the initiative foresee a recycling ceiling of around 70 percent and say tackling the remaining 30 percent would require a "fundamental design and innovation" approach. The New Plastics Economy pivots on the now-familiar concept of the circular economy:

Catalyzing change through collaboration in this global material flow will not only create a more effective plastics system, but will also demonstrate the potential for a wider shift from a linear to a circular economy—an economy in which plastics never become waste.

Cooperation among plastic-dependent companies is the key to the New Plastics Economy. The Global Commitment creates a platform for sharing best practices. It also sets up a common goal, with the expectation that a coordinated marketplace will help foster the innovation needed to meet that goal.

With a market-based target in hand, the New Plastics Economy anticipates that innovations will be focused on a global scale, to "re-define what’s possible and create the conditions for a new economy."

Part and parcel of the program is an evidence-based approach and an effort to engage stakeholders at every level, from students and academia to governments, NGOs and trade associations.

The Johnson & Johnson factor

Johnson & Johnson is a standout example within the New Plastics Economy, partly for its sustainability track record and also for its focus on social issues.

In a recent press release, the company notes that its history in awareness predates the corporate social responsibility movement:

In 1947, decades before the concept of sustainability became popular, then Johnson & Johnson Chairman and CEO General Robert Wood Johnson wrote in his book, Or Forfeit Freedom: “We must use our resources wisely, avoiding waste of both raw materials and scrap, while we seek substitutes for things already in short supply.”

Since then, the company has built up a roster of engagement with sustainability issues. Its in-house Health for Humanity 2020 Goals include a carbon footprint target, and it has also made commitments to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Johnson & Johnson already has a running start on product innovation that reduces waste, through its Earthwards program:

Since its launch in 2009, the Earthwards program—which encompasses consumer items, medical devices and pharmaceuticals—has seen the number of recognized products steadily rise. In the program’s first year, there were only three Earthwards-recognized products; by 2016, that number had jumped to 93.

The company's consumer branch has taken up responsibility for propelling the New Plastics Economy as a charter member. The approach is a holistic one:
Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. is pledging to use more recycled materials in packaging; reduce reliance on the single-use model; and ensure that 100 percent of plastic packaging be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

The focus on consumer brands, such as Johnson’s, Neutrogena and Listerine, provides leverage for an important missing piece of the New Plastics Economy: the human factor. With the prospect of plastic waste in the oceans doubling by 2025, there is clearly a need to engage individual consumers in the New Plastics Economy. Among Johnson & Johnson's actions on waste reduction, the company includes How2Recycle labels on its packaging. It also promotes recycling for personal care products through its Care To Recycle program.

Evidence is mounting that consumers will respond to messages about sustainability and social action. The CSR movement has certainly gone mainstream when publications like Entrepreneur feature headlines like this one...

5 Reasons Why Sustainability and Social Issues Attract Customers

Consumers want to feel good about the companies they buy from. What's your company doing to help that happen?


...capped off with this observation:
People who support specific causes are more likely to spend their money at businesses that share their interests. Use social media and other opportunities to educate and entertain people about your cause as well as your products and services to build brand awareness and increase revenues.

Recycling, reclaiming and repackaging have become powerful marketing tools. Aided by vivid pictures of beaches and sea life choked by plastic waste, public awareness of the ocean plastic problem is all but certain to continue building.

As the New Plastics Economy gains steam, look for companies like Johnson & Johnson to ramp up their efforts to educate and engage consumers—and build more shelf space, too.

Photo (screenshot): via Johnson & Johnson.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

Read more stories by Tina Casey