After three years of research, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, promoters of the circular economy concept, in partnership with the Global Economic Forum, published a new report "A new economy of plastics".


The proposed new economic model does not recognize plastic as waste, but as a valuable raw material that can be reintroduced into the economic circuit. The new plastics economy is supported and aligned with the principles of the circular economy. The objective of this new economy is to deliver better economic and environmental outcomes throughout the system by creating an efficient economy in terms of the use of plastics. "The economy of plastic materials" involves drastically reducing the leakage of plastic materials into natural systems (especially in the ocean) by decoupling plastic materials from fossil raw materials.

Research conducted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation by identifying examples of best practice has shown that the transition to the circular economy can bring lasting benefits to a more innovative and productive economy. For example, the study "Growth from a circular economic vision for a competitive Europe 2015" estimated that moving to circular economic development in just three areas - transport, food and environment - would generate savings of USD 1.8 trillion.[1]

Plastics production has increased 20-fold in the last 50 years, from 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 million tons in 2014, and is expected to double in the next 20 years (fig.1). Plastic generates significant negative externalities in the field of degradation of natural systems as a result of leakage, especially in the ocean; of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the production and subsequent incineration of plastic; and health and environmental impacts due to constituents of concern.


Fig. 1. Evolution of global plastic production (1950-2014)[2]

Plastic packaging alone constitutes 26 % of the total volume of plastic materials used, and 95% of the total packaging produced or more precisely 80-120 billion USD annually is lost after the first use. Between 2000 and 2015, the share of plastic packaging as part of global packaging volumes increased from 17% to 25%, driven by a significant growth of the global plastic packaging market – by 5% annually. In 2013, the industry put 78 million tons of plastic packaging on the market, with a total value of USD 260 billion. Plastic packaging volumes are expected to continue to grow, reaching 318 million tonnes annually by 2050 – or more than the entire plastics industry. Unfortunately, although it has already been more than 40 years since the first universal recycling symbol was launched, only 14% of plastic packaging has been collected for recycling.

Plastic packaging generates a negative impact of proportions, assessed by UNEP to $40 billion and will continue to grow if we continue to apply the business-as-usual model. Every year, at least 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean – the equivalent of dumping the contents of a garbage truck into the ocean every minute. If no action is taken, this amount of garbage dumped into the ocean is expected to increase to "two truckloads" per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050. Estimates suggest that plastic packaging is the most large share of total plastic thrown into the ocean. The most recent and truthful research available estimates that there are already over 150 million tons of plastic in the oceans today. A pessimistic scenario would be for the ocean to contain one tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050 more plastic than fish (by weight).

The usefulness and versatility of plastic in consumption over time generates more and more new models of production and consumption. It is certain that the variety of plastic products will always increase, it is important that this process is not based on the current linear economic model that will surely exacerbate the intensity of negative externalizations (fig.2).


Fig. 2. Forecasting plastic volume growth, negative externalities and oil consumption in the linear economy scenario[3]

The United States, Europe, and Asia produce 85 % of all plastics, which are evenly distributed between the United States and Europe on the one hand, and Asia on the other. Asia accounts for more than 80% of total ocean plastic discharges.[4]  As such, this region has been the focus of a variety of key efforts focused on improving plastic collection infrastructure to reduce ocean discharges. Europe and the United States are leaders in plastic production and the overwhelming number of leading global companies in the plastic packaging industry.

The increase in the amount and variety of plastic products, as well as consumption, is alarming and requires urgent solutions. It is certain that we will not give up plastic entirely, but we can still "improve" the characteristics of this waste in relation to environmental problems. The new economic model does not give up plastic, but is looking for innovative solutions and redesigns especially for large producing countries. As an example, during the last 40 years, several companies have managed to reduce the amount of plastic consumed in the production of packaging, thus reducing the pressure on the environment and also the consumption of consumed resources.

For example, compared to 1970, at the moment, 64% less plastic is used to produce a 1 liter bottle of glass washing solution, 43% less plastic for a 165g yoghurt pot, 43% less for a drink bottle of two liters, with 31% less plastic.[5] The latest 2011/2012 sustainability report presented by Coca-Cola announced a reduction in the weight of PET from plastic bottles by more than 25%. [6]

The plastic economy is definitely the innovation economy. As confirmation is the experience offered by Unilever. They recently announced the performance of MuCell technology, which can reduce the density of plastic material consumed in the production process. This process is made possible by injecting gases to create gas bubbles in the interlayer of the material. The respective technology can be applied to the production of plastic bottles, foils, etc. Unilever believes that if the technology is successfully applied in production, it could save up to 27,000 tonnes of plastic packaging every year.[7]

The full report on the Plastic Economy  – https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/the-new-plastics-economy-rethinking-the-future-of-plastics

[1] for Business and Environment, Growth Within: A Circular Economy Vision for a Competitive Europe (2015). Based on the exchange rate of EUR 1 to USD 1.10 (10 December 2015).

[2] https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/the-new-plastics-economy-rethinking-the-future-of-plastics

[3] https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/the-new-plastics-economy-rethinking-the-future-of-plastics

[4] JR Jambeck et al., Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean (Science, 13 February 2015).

[5] START website, Factsheet: Too much packaging? (http://www.incpen.org/displayarticle.asp?a=12&c=2).

[6] Coca cola, 2011/2012 Sustainability Report (2012).

[7] Unilever website, Core Values: recycling and the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (https://brightfuture.unilever.us/stories/425684/Core-Values–Recycling–And-The-Unilever-Sustainable-Living-Plan.aspx).