Plastics and plastic packaging are an integral and important part of the global economy. Plastics production has surged over the past 50 years, from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014, and is expected to double again over the next 20 years, as plastics come to serve increasingly many applications. Plastic packaging, the focus of this report, is and will remain the largest application; currently, packaging represents 26% of the total volume of plastics used. Plastic packaging not only delivers direct economic benefits, but can also contribute to increased levels of resource productivity – for instance, plastic packaging can reduce food waste by extending shelf life and can reduce fuel consumption for transportation by bringing packaging weight down.
While delivering many benefits, the current plastics economy also has important drawbacks that are becoming more apparent by the day. Today, 95% of plastic packaging material value, or $80–120 billion annually, is lost to the economy after a short first use. More than 40 years after the launch of the first universal recycling symbol, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5% of material value is retained for a subsequent use. Plastics that do get recycled are mostly recycled into lower-value applications that are not again recyclable after use. The recycling rate for plastics in general is even lower than for plastic packaging, and both are far below the global recycling rates for paper (58%) and iron and steel (70–90%). In addition, plastic packaging is almost exclusively single-use, especially in business-to-consumer applications.
Plastic packaging generates significant negative externalities, conservatively valued by UNEP at $40 billion and expected to increase with strong volume growth in a business-as-usual scenario. Each year, at least 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean – which
is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050. Estimates suggest that plastic packaging represents the major share of this leakage. The best research currently available estimates that there are over 150 million tonnes of plastics in the ocean today. In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight).
Sea Otter chewing on discarded cookie package; Sea turtle ingesting plastic bag.
The production of plastics draws on fossil feedstocks, with a significant carbon impact that will become even more significant with the projected surge in consumption. Over 90% of plastics produced are derived from virgin fossil feedstocks. This represents, for all plastics (not just plastic packaging), about 6% of global oil consumption, which is equivalent to the oil consumption of the global aviation sector. If the current strong growth of plastics usage continues as expected, the plastics sector will account for 20% of total oil consumption and 15% of the global annual carbon budget by 2050 (this is the budget that must be adhered to in order to achieve the internationally accepted goal to remain below a 2°C increase in global warming). Even though plastics can bring resource efficiency gains during use, these figures show that it is crucial to address the greenhouse gas impact of plastics production and afteruse treatment.
Plastics often contain a complex blend of chemical substances, of which some raise concerns about potential adverse effects on human health and the environment. While scientific evidence on the exact implications is not always conclusive, especially due to the difficulty of assessing complex long-term exposure and compounding effects, there are sufficient indications that warrant further research and accelerated action.
Many innovations and improvement efforts show potential, but to date these have proved to be too fragmented and uncoordinated to have impact at scale. Today’s plastics economy is highly fragmented. The lack of standards and coordination across the value chain has allowed a proliferation of materials, formats, labelling, collection schemes and sorting and reprocessing systems, which collectively hamper the development of effective markets. Innovation is also fragmented. The development and introduction of new packaging materials and formats across global supply and distribution chains is happening far faster than and is largely disconnected from the development and deployment of corresponding after-use systems and infrastructure. At the same time, hundreds, if not thousands, of small-scale local initiatives are launched each year, focused on areas such as improving collection schemes and installing new sorting and reprocessing technologies. Other issues, such as the fragmented development and adoption of labelling standards, hinder public understanding and create confusion.
In overcoming these drawbacks, an opportunity beckons: using the plastics innovation engine to move the industry into a positive spiral of value capture, stronger economics and better environmental outcomes.
Featured image: Blue Planet II on BBC
World Economic Forum, January 2016