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The Next Economy
New Study Uses Norway as Test Case for Achieving Circularity, Net Zero by 2040

Norway is the first country to scrutinize such a comprehensive scope of plastic sectors, making this study one of the most holistic views of a national plastic system ever presented.

Today, a new study from system-change consultancy Systemiq sets out a practical and ambitious roadmap for all stakeholders to accelerate the transition towards a circular, low-emissions plastic system in Norway by 2040. It finds that existing solutions can achieve unprecedented levels of resource efficiency across seven key sectors, and provide an affordable and scalable means of dramatically reducing GHG emissions. However, achieving this transition will require ambitious policies, innovation, capital investment, cross value-chain collaboration, consumer engagement and labour force reskilling.

Achieving Circularity: A low-emissions, circular plastic economy in Norway analyses ~80 percent of the country’s plastic use across seven key sectors: packaging, household goods, construction, textiles, electronics and electricals, automotive, and fishing and aquaculture. Norway is the first country to scrutinize such a comprehensive scope of plastic sectors, making this study one of the most holistic views of a national plastic system ever presented.

The study is focused on Norway, but the findings are representative of the plastics systems of most developed, high-consumption countries in Europe, the US and beyond — where high GHG emissions are driven by reliance on fossil-based virgin feedstock and very high incineration rates. The report was created by Systemiq in partnership with Handelens Miljøfond (Norwegian Retailers’ Environment Fund) and Norwegian consultancy Mepex, with input from 16 international experts.

The study presents five key findings:

  1. Currently, only 22 percent of plastic across the seven sectors is reused or recycled. The current plastic system relies to 90 percent on fossil-based plastic manufacturing processes, and roughly 70 percent of plastic is incinerated; the resulting emissions represent ~ 7 percent of Norway’s GHG emissions.

  2. Current policy and industry commitments are inadequate for transforming the Norwegian plastic system in a way that aligns with the goals of the European Green Deal, or the Paris and Glasgow climate agreements.

  3. The ambitious adoption of circular processes in the plastics value chain — including elimination, reduction and reuse, substitution as well as mechanical and chemical recyclingcan increase circularity from 22 percent in 2020 to 70 percent by 2040 and reduce waste disposal by ~35 percent.

  4. Circularity approaches alone are insufficient to bring the system into alignment with Norway’s climate target as they can only reduce GHG emissions by one third, leaving ~1.9 million tonnes of CO2eq of emissions by 2040 (down from ~2.8 million tonnes in 2020). Additional emissions-abatement measures, such as using alternative carbon feedstocks and capturing residual emissions, can reduce GHG emissions by ~75 percent by 2040 relative to 2020 and decouple plastic from fossil-fuel feedstocks.

5. Circularity and net-zero pathways are achievable within existing solutions, and the cost is not prohibitive — requiring an annual additional investment of ~$54M (570m NOK) for 20 years. The transformation could create ~1,300 additional jobs compared to 2020, but reskilling will be vital.

“Norway aims to continue to be a frontrunner on addressing the global plastic pollution challenge, and — together with Rwanda — is leading the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution,” says Cecilie Lind, General Manager at Handelens Miljøfond. “This study lays out a pathway for Norway’s own transition towards a low-emissions, zero-waste, circular plastic economy, and reducing the yearly Norwegian per capita plastic disposal from around 73 kg in 2020 to around 41 kg per year in 2040. Handelens Miljøfond is committed to strengthening partnerships and collaboration between stakeholders across the value chain in order to develop a shared vision and strategies for achieving a better plastic system in Norway.”

While the analysis shows that 70 percent circularity is achievable overall, the seven sectors analyzed rely on the different circularity interventions to varying degrees and will experience different levels of impact. Consumable applications are limited to circularity levels of up to 69 percent by 2040, largely due to the single-use, disposable nature of many plastics and the prevalent throwaway culture. Durable applications, by contrast, could achieve circularity levels of up to 87 percent; though there is still room for optimization — particularly through greater reuse, elimination of unnecessary plastics, and a shift to sharing models.

This study further highlights that solutions must go beyond reusing and recycling plastic, to include fundamentally “rethinking” the uses of plastic through new business models and dematerialization. It calls for a collaborative, systemic, cross-sector approach to ensure interventions are prioritized, incentivized and championed in the most effective way to balance upstream circularity, downstream circularity and supply-side abatement.

“The global treaty on plastic pollution offers a unique chance to shift towards a circular and low-emissions plastic economy. This study offers evidence-based recommendations on priority areas for a highly developed country’s plastic system,” says Yoni Shiran, Partner and Plastics Lead at Systemiq. “It shows that GHG emissions can be cut by 75 percent and waste disposal by 35 percent by 2040 in a way that is both affordable and achievable within technical constraints. This transition requires an ambitious combination of both upstream and downstream solutions, and it will require leadership and collaboration across industry, public sector, investors, and civil society. Only then can we seize this opportunity to shift to the low-emissions, circular plastic systems Norway — and the world — needs.”