“There’s a Great Future in Plastics”

Honored Contributor
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Contributed by Mats Linder, Ph.D., Project Manager, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

When Mr. McQuire told Dustin Hoffmann’s character Ben about the great future in plastics in the 1967 classic The Graduate, he didn’t know how right he was. In the 50 years since, total plastics production has seen a 20-fold increase, and today almost everyone everywhere encounters them every day. They have become the workhorse materials of the modern economy, combining unrivaled functionality with low cost.

While its products provide numerous benefits, the current plastics economy has drawbacks that become more apparent by the day. Packaging, the largest application with 26 percent of the market, leads to especially significant and sometimes starkly visual environmental, economic and social consequences. Last year, the World Economic Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company published The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking the future of plastics. This report found that most plastic packaging is used only once and 95 percent of its value, estimated at $80-120 billion, is lost to the economy every year. Forty years after the launch of the first universal recycling symbol, only 14 percent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling globally, and one-third is leaked – inadvertently or not – into the environment.

Seen by many as the next big issue for societies to rally around after climate change, there has been a recent wave of regulatory and social action around plastic packaging. In 2016, several countries followed India and banned single-use plastic bags: France banned non-biodegradable, single-use food service ware, and California approved Proposition 67 to prohibit retail stores from providing customers with single-us... – to name just a few examples. NGOs worldwide have also ramped up their efforts. The #breakfreefromplastic movement grew to over 500 member organizations in just a couple of weeks following its launch in Sept. 2016. With the EU Commission aiming to publish a strategy on plastics by the end of 2017 as part of its Circular Economy Action Plan, regulatory action is set to continue.

So is the “great future in plastics” coming to an end? The answer is likely “no, but…” While we are unlikely to back away from the benefits that plastics bring, we need to fundamentally rethink the global system through which they flow. In May 2016, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the New Plastics Economy initiative, a bold, three-year project intended to stimulate such a rethink and mobilize a transition towards a system based on circular economy principles. The initiative is unprecedented in its setup and in its attraction and involvement of leading philanthropic partners and front-running participant companies, cities and governments.

Radical innovation is an important enabler of a new plastics economy, and one of the initiative’s goals is to mobilize large-scale ‘innovation moonshots.’ A crucial finding of the recently published report Catalysing Action – in which the initiative’s targets are crystallized into recommended actions – is the need for a fundamental redesign of 30 percent (by volume) of all plastic packaging. The products in this segment would otherwise, by their very design, be destined to be land-filled, incinerated or leaked into the environment. Often, such leakage leads to the discharge of substances of concern to human health and ecosystem integrity. There is therefore an urgent need to develop new materials, new packaging design solutions, and new after-use recovery technologies. In other words, it is a good time to be an innovator in plastics.

Green chemistry provides an excellent framework to guide such innovation towards creating material systems consistent with a circular economy. Its principle to prevent waste is aligned with the central aim of the New Plastics Economy initiative to move towards a system in which packaging is not wasted after its single, short use. Its emphasis on moving away from hazardous substances and processes provides a rationale for designing out these components from plastics. And its aim to shift to renewable feedstocks for chemicals echoes the same need for plastics.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been on this journey for a few years now, but it is still very brief compared to the thousands of years of collective experience within the green chemistry community. To join the journey and continue to accelerate its momentum, we encourage the community to share its expertise and innovative ideas on how to rethink the future of plastics – its origins, its relationship to the user, and its destiny once used – with us.

As part the ‘innovation moonshots’ program, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation will launch two innovation challenges in the first half of 2017, aiming to address the identified need for fundamental redesign and innovation. We invite researchers, engineers and innovators across all disciplines to contribute to these challenges. But we also recognize that they are only a start – many similar efforts will be required. Innovation is unavoidably a bottom-up business, requiring a vibrant and diverse platform of research from which solutions for the future can emerge. This requires more researchers and engineers to participate in the innovation journey and more funders to finance their efforts.

While research funding is notoriously hard to come by, and competition for academic recognition fierce, momentum for a systemic rethink of plastics is growing. So perhaps stars are beginning to align for a virtuous circle of increasing research activities and funding which, provided firm and broad commitment, could lead to radical new innovation in coming years. At any rate, given the current increasing interest and sense of urgency for a systemic rethink to plastics production, it is safe to say that there is a great future in plastics – if you are a disruptive innovator.

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