Blog: Does plastic have a role to play in future economic systems?

Over the past few months, a member of the adm innovation team was selected to participate in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s “From Linear to Circular Programme” 10-week learning course. The course delivered a series of interactive webinar sessions with leading thought pioneers that discussed solutions on how to transition from the current linear economy we operate in to one that is more circular. This was conducted for a wide variety of topics ranging from plastics, to circular product design to food systems and regenerative agriculture.

Our blog today will focus on the topic of plastics, since it is a topic of frequent discussion with all our clients. The main question we all face is does plastic have a place in our lives and if so, what place does it have in a future circular economic system? The short answer to this question is yes, it can and does have a place but only if we drastically reassess our current consumption. Despite the overwhelming negative consumer backlash to plastic, the EMF team maintain that it’s not the material itself that is the problem but our industrial model and our careless overconsumption and waste that is the crucial global issue at hand.

Of the staggering 78 million tonnes of plastic that is produced annually, only

  • 14% gets collected for recycling
    • 2% of this gets closed loop recycled back into packaging
    • 8% is cascaded/down recycled (into other products of lesser value)
    • 4% gets lost in the process
  • 40% is sent to landfill
  • 14% goes to incineration (a linear and inefficient process)
  • 32% leaks to the environment – which equates to an unbelievable 4 trucks per minute to the ocean

So what are the actions we need to aim for in order to ensure our consumption of this material is sustainable, stops plastic pollution and adheres to the Circular Economy principles? The three main calls to urgent and bold action that are highlighted by EMF are to:

  1. Innovate the plastic we need for an effective after-use plastics economy either through reuse models, recycling or composting
  2. Drastically reduce the leakage of plastics into natural systems making sure the plastic we produce never becomes waste or pollution
  3. Eliminate the plastic we don’t need and decouple plastics from fossil fuel feedstocks

As such we need to innovate our mindset when we approach plastic products. We can achieve this whilst maintaining our objectives to deliver value and experience to the end consumer as well as operating within our environmental boundaries and natural resource capabilities.

When it comes to rethinking our approach, the three main areas that the EMF team advised focus on were:

  1. Product – what formulation, shape, size or format can we provide the product in to avoid the use of plastic or minimize the amount of material used?
  2. Packaging – what concept, format, material choice, components and design can we adapt to design out waste?
  3. System – what business model (reuse, renewal, or rental), supply chain, production location or method of delivery can we shift to in order to innovate our approach?

By applying these RETHINK values and questions to our plastic product, packaging and systems we can still deliver utility to the consumer whilst moving forwards to a circular economy.

For those interested in finding out more about the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the New Plastics Economy, follow https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/The-New-Plastics-Economy-Rethinking-the-Future-of-Plastics.pdf