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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Unilever Set to 'Catalysing Action' on New Plastics Economy

Due to their functional properties and low cost, plastics have become an integral part of our global economy and have seen their production increase twenty-fold over the past half-century. Despite their indisputable benefits, plastics have significant economic and environmental drawbacks. By 2050, it is estimated there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans. These negative impacts are sources of concern for business and government, who are recognizing the need to rethink the global plastic system. Architect and circular economy leader William McDonough says the cradle to cradle redesign of packaging is one of the great global design challenges of our time — similar to scaling renewable energy to address climate change — but more than 40 industry leaders are ready to take on the daunting task.

Dozens of companies — including Unilever, Coca-Cola, Mars and Veolia — have endorsed a new action plan to tackle global plastics issues and have begun working together to create a more effective global system for plastics. The action plan is presented in The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action, a new study by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) with analytical support from SYSTEMIQ, which reveals that concerted action by industry could result in reuse and recycling of 70% of all global plastic packaging, up from today’s recycling rate of just 14%.

The new action plan was produced as part of the New Plastics Economy Initiative, which was launched in May 2016 as a direct result of Project MainStream, a multi-industry, CEO-led collaboration led by the WEF and the EMF. It brings together more than 40 leading organizations representing the entire global plastics industry, from chemical manufacturers to consumer goods producers, retailers, city authorities and recyclers, to work together towards a more effective global system.

“The New Plastics Economy initiative has attracted widespread support, and across the industry we are seeing strong initial momentum and alignment on the direction to take,” said Dame Ellen MacArthur, founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. "The New Economy: Catalysing Action provides a clear plan for redesigning the global plastics system, paving the way for concerted action."

The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action provides a clear transition strategy for the global plastics industry to design better packaging, increase recycling rates, and introduce new models for making better use of packaging. It finds that 20% of plastic packaging could be profitably reused, for example by replacing single-use plastic bags with reusable alternatives, or by designing innovative packaging models based on product refills. A further 50% of plastic packaging could be profitably recycled if improvements are made to packaging design and systems for managing it after use. Without fundamental redesign and innovation, the remaining 30% of plastic packaging will never be recycled and will continue to send the equivalent of 10 billion garbage bags per year to landfill or incineration. Innovations in packaging design, recyclable and compostable materials, and reprocessing technologies are likely all required to move this challenging segment forward.

“This could drive systematic change. The plan puts innovation at the heart of a strategy that could shift the entire system while unlocking a billion-dollar business opportunity. Alignment along value chains and between the public and private sector is key to this,” said Dominic Waughtry, head of Public-Private Partnership, member of the Executive Committee at the World Economic Forum.

Prof. Dr. Martin R. Stuchtey, professor for Resource Strategy and Management at Innsbruck University and co-founder of SYSTEMIQ, added, “Minor changes in material, format and treatment can — in conjunction — make the economics of recycling viable and take us into a positive spiral of higher yields, lower costs and better design. The result will be plastic that remains a valuable material before and after use.”

The focus of the New Plastics Economy over the next year will be on bringing about wide-scale innovation. The initiative will launch two global innovation challenges to kickstart the redesign of materials and packaging formats, and begin building a set of global common standards (a ‘Global Plastics Protocol’) for packaging design, concentrating initially on the most impactful changes. It will also improve recycling systems by delivering collaborative projects between participant companies and cities. To support the shift to “circular” design thinking and systems perspectives and to inspire innovators, entrepreneurs and designers, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and IDEO are launching a publicly available ‘circular design guide’ this week in Davos.

Meanwhile, Unilever is already plowing ahead, promising to make all of its plastic packaging fully reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025 and calling upon the entire consumer goods industry to accelerate progress towards the circular economy.

To shift away from a “take-make-dispose” model of consumption and transform global plastic packaging material flows, Unilever has committed to:

  • Ensure all of its packaging is designed to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025;
  • Renew its membership of the EMF for another three years and endorse and support the New Plastics Economy Initiative. As part of this, it will publish the full “palette” of plastics materials used in its packaging by 2020 to help create a plastics protocol for the industry;
  • And invest in proving, and then sharing with the industry, a technical solution to recycle multi-layered sachets, particularly for coastal areas, which are most at risk of plastics leaking into the ocean.

This isn’t the first time Unilever has pledged to clean up its packaging practices. The company has already committed to reduce the weight of the packaging it uses this decade by one third by 2020, and increase its use of recycled plastic content in its packaging to at least 25% by 2025 against a 2015 baseline, both as part of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. In 2015, it achieved its commitment of sending zero non-hazardous waste to landfill across its manufacturing operations.

Unilever CEO Paul Polman said: “Our plastic packaging plays a critical role in making our products appealing, safe and enjoyable for our consumers. Yet it is clear that if want to continue to reap the benefits of this versatile material, we need to do much more as an industry to help ensure it is managed responsibly and efficiently post-consumer use.”

“We also need to work in partnership with governments and other stakeholders to support the development and scaling up of collection and reprocessing infrastructure, which is so critical in the transition towards a circular economy. Ultimately, we want all of the industry’s plastic packaging to be fully circular.”

William McDonough added: “The optimization of packaging and plastics is so timely and important that all the people, communities and companies involved — suppliers, producers, retailers, customers and consumers — can work together now, with common values and purpose, to create and share beneficial value for generations to come."

As part of its commitment, Unilever will ensure that by 2025, it is technically possible for its plastic packaging to be reused or recycled and there are established, proven examples of it being commercially viable for plastics re-processors to recycle the material.