How Can We Create a World Where Plastic Never Becomes Waste?

Today nearly everyone, everywhere, every day, comes into contact with plastics. Plastics have become the ubiquitous workhorse material of the modern economy — combining unrivalled functional properties with low cost. And yet, while delivering many benefits, the current plastics economy has drawbacks that are becoming more apparent by the day.

Significant economic value is lost after each use, along with wide-ranging negative impacts to natural systems. How can we turn the challenges of our current plastics economy into a global opportunity for innovation and value capture, resulting in stronger economies and better environmental outcomes?

As part of Project MainStream, the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with McKinsey & Company as a knowledge partner, have come together under the guidance of a Steering Board with nine global CEOs, to answer this question. Our latest report The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plasticslays out a blueprint for an economy where plastic never becomes waste.

What’s the state of plastics today?

Our current plastics economy can be seen as the archetypal “linear” (take-make-dispose) system:

· Significant value is lost: Most plastic packaging is used only once; 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy.

· Substantial negative economic costs: The cost of negative externalities from plastic packaging (e.g. on oceans and urban infrastructure), combined with the cost associated with greenhouse-gas emissions from its production is conservatively estimated at $40 billion annually — exceeding the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool.

· Under business-as-usual conditions, these negative costs are expected to increase significantly over the coming decades. Given the projected growth in consumption, by 2050 oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish (by weight), and the entire plastics industry will consume 20% of total oil production and 15% of the annual carbon budget.

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