In an interview with Plastics News Europe, Rob Opsomer, lead of the New Plastics Economy initiative at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, explains that recycling is just one part of the group’s circular economy project.
Q: Firstly, can you provide an outline picture of what the circular economy will look like as it develops? Some people refer to the circular economy in terms of increased recycling, but is it just that?
Opsomer: The circular economy represents a trillion-dollar opportunity for global industry to move away from the linear take-make-dispose model, towards one that is restorative and regenerative by design. Business model innovation, product re-design, increased asset utilisation and circulation, and the wider use of renewable energy and regenerative practices are all factors of the transition. So it is about more than recycling – though for the New Plastics Economy, recycling remains a key aspect of course.
Q: What is the New Plastics Economy initiative? Why do you feel there is a need for such a large-scale transformation in the existing dynamics of plastics supply and demand?
Opsomer: Led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the New Plastics Economy is an ambitious, three-year, $10m initiative to build momentum towards a plastics system that works. Applying the principles of the circular economy, the New Plastics Economy brings together over 40 key stakeholders across the value chain to re-think and re-design the future of plastics, starting with packaging.
Today just 14% of plastic packaging globally gets collected for recycling, and 32% of all plastics produced are leaked into the environment, resulting in a significant loss for the economy and a negative impact on the natural environment.
In our recent report, ‘The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action’, launched at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos 2017, we laid out an action plan, which would see 70% of plastic packaging reused and recycled globally, up from today’s recycling rate of 14%; while highlighting the need to fundamentally redesign and innovate around the remaining 30% of plastic packaging. Today this 30%, equivalent to 10 billion garbage bags per year, is by very design destined for landfill, incineration, or energy recovery, and are often likely to leak into the environment after a short single use.
Q: How will the initiative impact on companies in the plastics industry – both polymer producers and manufacturers using plastics?
Opsomer: With an explicitly systemic and collaborative approach, the New Plastics Economy initiative aims to create a shared sense of direction, to 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. For some companies that might mean exploring new, innovative product and packaging design. For others it might mean developing and using new materials. For all it means intensely collaborating across the value chain.
The focus of the New Plastics Economy over the next year will be on catalysing wide scale innovation. The initiative will launch two global innovation challenges to kick-start the redesign of materials and packaging formats, and begin building a set of global common standards (a ‘Global Plastics Protocol’) for packaging design, concentrating initially on the most impactful changes.
It will also improve recycling systems by delivering collaborative projects between participant companies and cities. To support the shift to “circular” design thinking and systems perspectives and to inspire innovators, entrepreneurs and designers, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and [US design group] IDEO just launched a new, publicly available Circular Design Guide.
* The European Commission's Circular Economy plans will be discussed in a conference session at Plastics Recycling Show Europe in Amsterdam on 29-30 March. Find out more about the PRS Europe conference and exhibition, organised by Crain Communications, at www.prseventeurope.com.