Nature and Biodiversity

5 steps to transforming the plastics economy

Plastic bottles with the bottoms cut are placed over flower bulbs to protect them from the frost near the sea shore in the Black Sea harbour of Constanta, 250 km (155 miles) east of Bucharest February 4, 2012.

Image: REUTERS/Radu Sigheti

Rob Opsomer
Systemic Initiatives Lead, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
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Plastics are fundamental to industry and everyday life. Yet they are one of the most wasteful examples of our existing linear, take-make-dispose economy. With material value losses running at $80-120 billion a year and environmental externalities costing at least $40 billion a year (more than the industry’s profit pool) in plastic packaging alone, the opportunity for the global economy of transforming the system is clear. But how can we move beyond 40 years of fragmented, incremental efforts to arrive at a systemic transformation? This week, the New Plastics Economy initiative launched in London, brings together 40 leading companies and cities, with the expressed aim of acting on this question.

We believe there are five critical elements to achieving systemic transformations, as outlined for the case of plastics:

Create a dialogue mechanism

An effective system-wide solution can only be achieved through cross-value chain collaboration. Global consumer goods companies, retailers, plastic producers and packaging manufacturers, cities and businesses involved in the collection, sorting and reprocessing of plastics need to be brought together to shape the future of the industry and execute collaborative demonstration projects of a circular system.

Draw up a global plastics protocol

The industry needs a common target to innovate towards, to cut through the decades of highly fragmented, uncoordinated and incremental innovation. By fundamentally re-thinking the system and driving convergence, a global plastics protocol enables the creation of effective markets.

Innovation moonshots

We’re on the cusp of a disruptive economic, social and technological revolution. Our world is being rewired, by digitisation, automation, and artificial intelligence. Harnessing this creativity to mobilise innovations that can scale across the system will re-define what’s possible in a new plastics economy.

Evidence base

A robust evidence base informs the direction of change. Economic assessments guide the prioritisation of potential improvements. Creating transparency on the realities and best practices of today’s system informs the global debate.


Engaging stakeholders is crucial to learn, to inform, and to amplify what works. Businesses, policymakers, students, educators, academics, designers, citizens, NGOs, industry associations, and others all play a role in transitioning to a new system.

Taken together these elements can create a shared sense of direction, spark a wave of innovation and to move the plastics value chain into a positive spiral of value capture, stronger economics, and better environmental outcomes. Implementing them means collaborating across silos, overcoming the dizzying complexity of materials and the embedded fragmentation of processes. To realise a truly systemic change means thinking of an interdependent system rather than a series of isolated parts, being open to new ideas and experiments, and identifying those innovations that can scale to shift the market.

With an explicitly systemic and collaborative approach, the New Plastics Economy initiative’s launch this week sought to put in place these five interlinked and mutually reinforcing building blocks to create the enabling conditions for a plastics system re-design. The three-year initiative will apply the principles of the circular economy and bring together key stakeholders to re-think and re-design the future of plastics, starting with packaging.

The initiative stems from The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking the future of plasticsreport, launched in January 2016, at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos. The report was the result of a collaborative effort involving more than 40 participant companies and cities across the global plastic packaging value chain. It comprehensively laid out the material flows and realities of today’s plastics economy, and outlined a system with fundamentally better economic and environmental outcomes – a new plastics economy. It was produced as part of Project MainStream, a collaboration between the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with McKinsey & Company as a knowledge partner, and led by the CEOs of nine global companies.

Catalysing change in this global material flow will not only create a more effective plastics system, but will also demonstrate the potential for a wider shift from a linear to a circular economy.

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Nature and BiodiversityCircular Economy
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