Explore our plastics learning pathway

Dive deeper: A series of learning modules to expand your understanding of the circular economy for plastic.

10 minute read

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Our relationship with plastic needs rethinking. Plastics are versatile materials, but the way we use them is incredibly wasteful.

We take oil and gas from the earth to make plastic products that are often designed to be used only once, and then we throw them away. This is what we call a linear take-make-waste model.

Year on year, millions of tonnes of plastic, worth billions of dollars, ends up in landfills, is burned, or leaked into the environment. A staggering 8 million tonnes leaks into the ocean every year — and that number is rising. If we don't rethink its use, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (by weight) by 2050.

No one wants to be in this position. Is it possible to rethink the way we design, use, and reuse plastics to create a circular economy for plastic?

Section 1 | The linear plastic system

Contents

Section 3: A circular economy for plastic

Section 2: How do we create a circular economy for plastic?

Section 1: The linear plastic system

1 Closed-loop recycling: Recycling of plastics into the same or similar-quality application
2 Cascaded recycling: Recycling of plastics into other, lower-value applications

Section 1 | The linear plastic system

Section 1 | The linear plastic system

The use of plastics has increased twentyfold in the past 50 years. While the material has many benefits, we now know there are negative consequences if it becomes waste or pollution.

Documentaries such as Blue Planet II, showing the impact of plastic pollution on wildlife around the world, have shocked and spurred a public backlash against the material.

In 2016, the Foundation published a report which showed that most plastic packaging is used only once, and only 14% is collected for recycling. 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth USD 80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy.

In our second report on plastics, published in 2017 - with our partners, we showed that without fundamental redesign and innovation, about 30% of plastic packaging will never be reused or recycled.

So how can we design a circular economy for plastic, in which it never becomes waste or pollution?

Are these ideas the right solution to accelerate the transition to a circular economy for plastic?

Section 2 | How do we create a circular economy for plastic?

More beach clean-ups

Beach clean-ups are needed to clean up the waste already in our environment, but they are far from enough. Even if we manage to clean up the current plastic in the environment, more plastic leaks into it every day. Every minute, one garbage truck of plastic waste enters the world’s oceans. We need to stop plastic leaking into the environment.

Are these ideas the right solution to accelerate the transition to a circular economy for plastic?

Section 2 | How do we create a circular economy for plastic?

Ban all plastic and replace it with another material, such as glass, paper or aluminium

In some cases banning plastics can be a solution, but substitution of plastic with other materials can lead to significant negative, unintended consequences, such as increased carbon emissions, water use, and food waste. In every case, we must take a holistic approach, looking at the whole system in which a material is used, from sourcing and production to use and after use.

Redesign
the entire plastics system

Section 2 | How do we create a circular economy for plastic?

We need a systemic approach to create a system that works in practice, without loss of economic value and no plastic waste or pollution. We need to rethink the way we make, use, and reuse plastics, essentially redesigning the system in which the material is used.

Solution

The circular economy is an economic system in which materials are designed to be used, not used up. From the outset, products and the systems they sit within should be designed to ensure no materials are lost, no toxins are leaked, and the maximum use is achieved from every process, material, and component.

SECTION 3 | A CIRCULAR ECONOMY FOR PLASTIC

A circular economy for plastic

If applied correctly, the circular economy benefits society, the environment, and the economy.

All packaging should be designed to fit within a system, whether a reuse, recycling or composting system. This image shows how we’d apply the circular economy to plastics.

SECTION 1 | THE LINEAR PLASTIC SYSTEM

SECTION 1 | THE LINEAR PLASTIC SYSTEM

Eliminate the plastics we don’t need.

Plastic brings many benefits. At the same time, there are some problematic items on the market that need to be eliminated to achieve a circular economy, and sometimes, plastic packaging can be avoided altogether while maintaining utility.

While improving recycling is crucial, we cannot recycle our way out of the plastic issues we currently face. Wherever relevant, reuse business models should be explored as a preferred solution (or ‘inner loop’ in circular economy terms), reducing the need for single-use plastic packaging.

Reuse models, which provide an economically attractive opportunity for at least 20% of plastic packaging, need to be implemented in practice and at scale.

Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable.

This requires a combination of redesign and innovation in business models, materials, packaging design, and reprocessing technologies.

Compostable plastic packaging is not a blanket solution, but rather one for specific, targeted applications, because an effective collection and composting infrastructure is essential but often not in place.

Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

No plastic should end up in the environment. Landfill, incineration, and waste-to-energy are not long term solutions that support a circular economy.

Governments are essential in setting up effective collection infrastructure, facilitating the establishment of related self-sustaining funding mechanisms, and providing an enabling regulatory and policy landscape.

Businesses producing and/or selling packaging have a responsibility beyond the design and use of their packaging, which includes contributing towards it being collected and reused, recycled, or composted in practice.

SECTION 3 | A CIRCULAR ECONOMY FOR PLASTIC

SECTION 1 | THE LINEAR PLASTIC SYSTEM

In a new plastics economy, plastic never becomes waste or pollution. Three actions are required to achieve this vision and create a circular economy for plastic. Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items. Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

Without elimination, achieving a circular economy for plastic will not be possible. With the demand for plastic packaging set to double over the coming two decades, it will be impossible to keep this ever-growing flow of plastics in the economy and out of the environment. To achieve a circular economy we need to reduce the amount of material that needs to be circulated.

SECTION 3 | A CIRCULAR ECONOMY FOR PLASTIC

Eliminate, Reuse, and Material Circulation

Imagine a luxurious, durable ice cream container which keeps the ice cream frozen for hours outside the fridge, and is delivered and picked up in a subscription model. It’s convenient, has a better look and feel, and keeps customers coming back.

Reusable packaging is designed to be used multiple times, for its originally intended purpose, as part of a dedicated system for reuse. The packaging is brought back into the economy through washing, retaining its original form throughout its entire life of multiple uses. There are four different business-to-consumer (B2C) reuse models, differing in terms of packaging ‘ownership’. Refill users retain ownership as in they keep the packaging, while Return users return the packaging and the ownership either moves between business and user or stays with the business.

SECTION 3 | A CIRCULAR ECONOMY FOR PLASTIC

Reuse

Reuse models are sometimes considered burdensome or a thing of the past. However, innovative reuse models can unlock significant benefits, enabled by digital technologies and shifting user preferences. Such models can help deliver a superior user experience, customise products to individual needs, gather user insights, build brand loyalty, optimise operations, and save costs. Reusable packaging is a USD 10+ billion innovation opportunity that can deliver significant user and business benefits.

Moving from single-use to reuse not only helps eliminate plastic waste and pollution but also, if done well, offers significant reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other negative externalities*.

Find out more in our Reuse book, which provides a framework to understand reuse, identifies six major benefits, and maps 69 examples from around the world.

* Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Towards a circular economy vol.3: accelerating the scale-up across global supply chains (2014).

SECTION 3 | A CIRCULAR ECONOMY FOR PLASTIC

Reuse

The four reuse models

SECTION 3 | A CIRCULAR ECONOMY FOR PLASTIC

Reuse can...

SECTION 1 | THE LINEAR PLASTIC SYSTEM

The use of plastics has increased twentyfold in the past 50 years. While the material has many benefits, we now know there are negative consequences if it becomes waste or pollution.

 

Documentaries such as Blue Planet II, showing the impact of plastic pollution on wildlife around the world, have shocked and spurred a public backlash against the material.

 

In 2016, the Foundation published a report which showed that most plastic packaging is used only once, and only 14% is collected for recycling. 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth USD 80-120 billion annually,
is lost to the economy.

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The use of plastics has increased twentyfold in the past 50 years. While the material has many benefits, we now know there are negative consequences if it becomes waste or pollution.

 

Documentaries such as Blue Planet II, showing the impact of plastic pollution on wildlife around the world, have shocked and spurred a public backlash against the material.

 

In 2016, the Foundation published a report which showed that most plastic packaging is used only once, and only 14% is collected for recycling. 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth USD 80-120 billion annually,
is lost to the economy.

Title to go here

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