The global plastics economy produces over 300 million tonnes of material each year, a figure that has increased twenty-fold over the past 50 years and is expected to double again by 2050. Transforming this system is a daunting task. However, it may start with a simple mindset change, one where stakeholders across the industry’s value chain look beyond the standard 10% incremental improvement targets focused on efficiency and recycling, and towards a redesign of the entire system.
Design thinking, innovation and ambition were focus points during the inaugural New Plastics Economy workshop, a two-day event which brought together a range of business actors from across the plastics sector including retailers, manufacturers and recyclers. Situated at the iconic Royal Society of Arts, a building founded with the mission to better society through ideas and action in the arts, manufacturing and commerce, the workshop brought the initiative’s stakeholders together for the first time and set the stage for a bold three-year project.
The initiative aims to mobilise the recommendations from the recent New Plastics Economy report*, which found that 95% of the material value of plastics is lost after just one use amounting to $80-120 billion being lost to the economy each year. Furthermore, the system as a whole has several damaging outputs, including negative externalities estimated conservatively at $40 billion per year, a figure that exceeds the industry’s profit pool.
Still, there’s reason to be optimistic that these challenges can be overcome. Growing awareness of the task at hand and issues with traditional solutions, while technological advancements, for example in areas ranging from processing capabilities, manufacturing processes and digitally-enabled monitoring and collection systems are particularly encouraging factors. Meanwhile, a diverse range of stakeholders from across the plastics value chain are engaging with the issue, “In this room we have the power of over 1000 years of collective experience”, Rob Opsomer, New Plastics Economy programme lead, commented in his opening remarks on Wednesday.
Experience is valuable, but thinking differently is critical. Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying that, “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Design firm IDEO are heavily engaged with the project, and the importance of new kind of thinking and a new system design inspired approach was balanced with leveraging the experience already at the table throughout the event, which will hopefully be a first step towards the development of cross-industry collaborations and projects over the course of the next three years.
The New Plastics Economy report was published and released in January at the World Economic Forum. The initiative is led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with a broad group of leading companies, cities, philanthropists, policymakers, academics, students, NGOs, and entrepreneurs. It builds on two years of formative work as part of Project MainStream, a multi-industry, global initiative launched in 2014 by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with McKinsey.
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