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Towards a new plastics economy

Posted on 18 May 2017.

At the Davos Forum in January 2017, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation presented a series of measures that would increase the recycling rate of plastic packaging from 14% to 70%.

Because of their properties, versatility, and low cost, plastic packaging is part of our daily lives. The pollution they generate as well. In January 2016, a study by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation stated that if nothing is done, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. In view of this, a new report, "The New Plastics Economy: Catalyzing Action", was published last January at the Davos Forum. This report presents a series of concrete actions to reduce the environmental impact of plastic packaging. It focuses on three areas: redesign and innovation, reuse, and recycling.

Redesign packaging and invest in innovation

The report identifies four types of packaging that cannot be reused or recycled either because the processes used are not economically viable or because they are technically too complex: small individual packages, multi-material packaging, PVC or expanded polystyrene polymers, and packages contaminated with organic waste. If we do not change our approach, about 30% of plastic packaging will never be reused or recycled!

Initiatives must include redesigning formats and how products are distributed to consumers to reduce the need for individual packaging. The example of the soda cans quoted in the report illustrates the potential for such measures. In the 70s, the ring pull device used to open cans was difficult to collect and was often thrown away. The development of a "Stay-On-Tab" mechanism allowed these ring pulls to be collected and recycled.

Another way forward is innovation, which applies to both waste treatment technologies and the development of new packaging, such as multi-compostable or fully separable packaging.

Encourage reuse

According to the report, reuse could concern 20% of plastic packaging and represent an economic opportunity of at least nine billion dollars. To make this possible, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation recommends encouraging the reuse of packaging at home. Applied to the packaging of hygiene and beauty products and cleaning products, this could save approximately three million tons of packaging which represents at least eight billion dollars.

The Foundation also calls for single-use plastic bags to be replaced with reusable bags. If all the countries of the world achieved a replacement rate of 95%, this could represent an annual reduction of 300 billion single-use bags and generate nearly one billion in savings.

Improve recycling

Currently only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling worldwide. This small percentage is explained by the difficulty of treating this waste which comes in a wide variety of forms and materials. Although some processes, such as PET recycling, are well developed, the costs of collecting, sorting, and recovering plastic packaging generally exceed the revenue generated.

"The New Plastics Economy: Catalyzing Action" calls on manufacturers to make concerted efforts and implement good practices under a global protocol. The aim is to harmonize packaging (in four areas: formats, materials, coloring, and additives) and collection and sorting systems to improve the recyclability of packaging as well as the quality and economic efficiency of recycling. These improvements could concern 50% of plastic packaging.

Supported by over forty manufacturers, including Unilever, Danone, and Veolia, this new report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation evokes a "new plastic economy" based on the principles of circular economy.