The linear economy, of which plastics packaging value chain is an iconic example, is ripe for disruption. Without a doubt, plastics bring many benefits, and the economy as we know it would not be able to work without them. But it is becoming increasingly evident that the current, linear plastics system is broken (Figure 1). Globally, only 14 percent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, with even less actually making it back into applications. This means that money is being left on the table—$80 to $120 billion worth of plastic packaging material is lost to the global economy each year.

The system’s environmental toll is heavy and increasing exponentially. A staggering one-third of all plastic packaging escapes into the environment, a rate so high that by 2050 there could be, by weight, more plastic than fish in the ocean. The rest is either landfilled or incinerated, resulting in  further risks to human health and the environment. The total negative impacts of the linear plastics system are hard to quantify, but a conservative estimate from UN Environment valued them at $40 billion a year—more than the industry’s profits.

Fixing the system

The circular economy offers a framework to rethink this broken system and provides an attractive vision for a plastics economy that works—a New Plastics Economy. It is based on three core ambitions (Figure 2):

  • Create an effective after-use plastics economy. This is the cornerstone of a New Plastics Economy. Reaching it will require many different factors working together, but if scaled up it will help achieve the other two ambitions.
  • Drastically reduce negative impacts (such as plastic escaping into the environment). These unacceptable symptoms of a broken system need fundamental upstream solutions.
  • Decouple plastics from fossil feed stocks. While effective material loops are always the goal in a circular economy, some materials will escape, for example by biodegradation. It is important that new plastic is made from renewable resources.

The 2016 report “Rethinking the Future of Plastics” outlined these ambitions and was published shortly before the establishment of The New Plastics Economy initiative. This three-year, collaborative project is led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and brings together a broad group of leading companies, philanthropists, policymakers and non-governmental organizations.

Our recently published report, “Catalysing Action,” outlined three widely endorsed strategies to start the transition from a linear to a circular plastics economy (Figure 3). The report found, encouragingly, that recycling and reuse can be economically attractive for 70 percent of all plastics using current or nascent technologies.

However, it also concluded that 30 percent of plastic packaging by weight (or greater than 50 percent of all items) is destined to become waste by design. These items will never be recycled unless radically redesigned or re-invented. Such items include small-format items like caps, straws and tear-offs, and multi-layer, multi-material laminates, as used in chip bags, pouches and sachets.

These types of items play a major role in getting products to people and enabling global supply chains, and a multitude of innovative solutions have gone into rendering them lighter, cheaper, and more high performing. But the catch is that all these innovations have been made with a linear plastics economy in mind, with no system-wide framework to guide innovation toward the goal of creating a plastic system that works overall. As a consequence, small and multi-material items are technically difficult and very costly to recycle compared to the value of the material—meaning that reuse and recycling rates are, and are expected to remain, vanishingly low.

With no economically viable reuse or recycling options, these small-format, complex or multi-material items are the most prone to end up in the environment, which very often puts them in our waterways and oceans. And it is not enough to treat the symptom. Experts familiar with the data unanimously say that beach clean-ups or other efforts to suck plastics out of the oceans, while helpful, are insufficient as long as we don’t prevent plastics from ending up where they don’t belong.

Shift the paradigm

So, if we want to free our oceans from plastics, we have to fundamentally rethink the way we make, use and reuse plastic items so that they don’t become waste in the first place. The New Plastics Economy can be the system-wide framework that guides innovation in the right direction. But we also need innovative new solutions, such as better materials and better designs. Radical innovation is a crucial enabler of a new plastics economy, and one of the initiative’s goals is to mobilize large-scale “innovation moonshots.”

Taking on this challenge is a completely new ball game for innovators in the plastics industry. It requires incorporating a wider and more complex set of parameters in design and materials choice, taking on a broader stewardship responsibility for the packaging long after it has left the store, and developing a deep understanding for the needs both of users and of waste managers. But if the industry is not used to doing that, how are we to successfully address the challenge of the 30 percent?

Open innovation provides an interesting pathway to address technology and design problems, in particular where it is not clear who the natural owner of a challenge is. In the last 10 years it has increased in popularity, as attested by large multi-million dollar competitions like X-Prize and the Nesta grand challenges as well as collaborative and smaller-scale challenges and student competitions. In fact, the idea to crowdsource innovation is as old as innovation itself. The British Parliament’s Longitude Prize in the 1700s is a famous example, just as Charles Lindbergh’s flight from Paris to New York in 1927 was a response to the Orteig Prize issued in 1919. Sometimes a competition can lead to unexpected but revolutionary results, like when Henri Poincaré tried to solve a seemingly simple mathematical problem issued by King Oscar II of Sweden and Norway, and unknowingly laid the foundations of chaos theory.

The nature of innovation

Such is the nature of open innovation: You don’t know if you’ll get the result you asked for, or indeed any results at all. But it provides a direction of travel, a transparent vision of what kind of world we want to move toward. With the acute awareness of the exponentially increasing, and largely unaddressed, environmental toll caused by the current plastics system, invoking an open innovation approach is an attractive option.

That’s why earlier this year, we launched the $2 million New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, which aims to stimulate innovation to find systemic and long-term solutions that might otherwise not be pursued. Because 30 percent of plastics packaging poses such a formidable and growing global challenge, we are calling on innovators to find alternative and recyclable materials, and to re-imagine the design of plastic packaging. Innovative solutions to this challenge would collectively help create a plastics system that works.

It is a daunting task that will draw on everyone’s creativity. There are ways to create economic value while phasing out negative impacts, but as the readers of this magazine are better positioned than most to understand, trying to figure out how to make all the systemic and technological changes we need is a temple-throbbing exercise. But we can’t build the economy we want if we can’t imagine it. The New Plastics Economy initiative seeks to expand a vision of what this economy looks like for plastics, and the Innovation Prize invites scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors and designers to help reimagine the technologies and design solutions that will get us there.