Circular Economy

We can stop plastic pollution at the design stage - here's how

A plastic bottle is seen floating in an Adriatic sea of the island Mljet, Croatia, May 30, 2018. Picture taken May 30, 2018

If we can design out plastic waste, we won't need to clean it up Image: REUTERS/Antonio Bronic

United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Circular Economy?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Plastics and the Environment is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Plastics and the Environment

Marine plastic pollution, commonly referred to as marine plastic litter, is a major global environmental problem. It harms marine species through ingestion and entanglement, violates the integrity of ecosystems, inhibits growth of marine plants, accumulates and transports pathogens that may cause disease and injuries to marine animals, plants and humans, and partly ends up in the food chain. Moreover, it causes economic losses due to reduced fishery yields, declining amenities for tourism, and damage to shipping and related infrastructure.

Some of the plastic in the oceans comes from fisheries, aquaculture, nautical activities and illegal dumping in the sea, but around 80% comes from the land. Land-based plastic pollution is caused primarily by inappropriate management of plastic packaging waste and short-lived products originating from various consumer products in numerous sectors. These consist, for example, of plastic bags; single and multilayer food and beverage containers; cleaning and personal care product containers; food wrapping and trays; plastic foil; single-use cutlery; cups; synthetic textiles and clothing; plastic footwear; and so on. Wind and rain carry this litter into streams and rivers, and then into the oceans.


How UpLink is helping to find innovations to solve challenges like this

Nowhere to throw it

Better management of plastic litter on land would clearly reduce the amount entering the oceans, but that doesn’t address the issue of what to do with the overwhelming amounts of plastic waste we generate in the first place. There is nowhere to throw it all away.

One way to approach the challenge is by transitioning to a circular economy, where the crucial concept is the designing out of waste. The key to the success of the circular economy approach is to focus on the design stage, rather than trying to deal with waste at the end of the product’s life.

Our oceans now contain 86 million tonnes of plastic waste - and counting
Our oceans now contain 86 million tonnes of plastic waste - and counting Image: GRID-Arendal/Maphoto/Riccardo Pravettoni

In the case of plastic, the idea is to change practices and encourage innovation so that we use less plastic; design plastic products so that they can be reused; develop technologies to allow more effective and efficient reprocessing of used plastic; and devise and use safer alternatives to traditional plastics.

Plastic packaging, synthetic textiles and clothing, and short-lived, fast-moving consumer and institutional products made of plastics contribute significantly to the generation of marine plastic litter. There is hardly any global, regional, national report or research study on marine plastic litter that does not point out the contribution of packaging, single-use or short-lived consumer products, personal care products containing microbeads, synthetic clothing and microfibers, and fishing gear lost at sea.

At the design stage

The rapid, flowing nature of plastic packaging and short-lived plastic consumer products which become waste needs to be addressed by the consumers of plastic packaging, namely industries such as manufacturers of food and beverage producers, shoes, textiles and garments, as well as the manufacturers of short-lived consumer products. This is best done at the design phase within the value chain, through collaboration with plastic producers and converters - the companies which manufacture plastic products, ranging from toothbrushes to building pipes, from fruit boxes to car interiors.

In the product design stage, the following approaches might be considered:

1) Scrutinizing the necessity of packaging altogether

2) Selecting renewable, biodegradable and compostable materials and additives that are not toxic or that are less toxic than fossil-based plastics

3) Designing for less material use in order to decrease waste

4) Designing packaging and products that use a single or small number of polymers that are easy to separate during recycling

Policy measures to incentivize circular economy practices in design could consist of supporting the implementation of innovations in the re-design of existing products and the design of new products, as well as support for innovations and start-ups, in particular those related to new, biodegradable and compostable plastics.

Have you read?
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Circular EconomyNature and Biodiversity
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Circularity of critical metals in the energy transition: What we can learn from platinum group metals

Margery Ryan and Anis Nassar

April 22, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum