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Forget Incremental Improvements: 40 Companies, Cities Working to Activate New Plastics Economy

Image credit: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative kicks off today with an inaugural workshop that brings together more than 40 leading companies including Amcor, Coca-ColaThe Dow Chemical Company, DuPont, Indorama Ventures, Marks & Spencer, MARS, Natureworks, Novamont, Sealed Air, SUEZ, Unilever and Veolia, as well as front-running cities such as Copenhagen, and London’s Waste and Recycling Board.

Building on the recommendations of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics report, launched at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos in January, the three-year initiative is taking a concrete first step towards the design of a plastics system grounded in circular economy principles. The report, which attracted global media attention, arguably provides the first comprehensive view of the global plastic packaging value chain, highlighting its contributions but also revealing significant drawbacks. With material value loss running at $80-120 billion a year in the industry and negative environmental externalities costing at least $40 billion a year — a figure greater than the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool — the opportunity for the global economy of transforming the system is clear (not to mention Trucost’s recent estimate that scaling up companies’ use of recovered plastics and alternative materials could deliver additional environmental savings of $3.5 billion).

With an explicitly systemic and collaborative approach, the New Plastics Economy initiative aims to overcome the limitations of incremental improvements and fragmented initiatives that, over the last 40 years, have failed to move the needle.

“This new initiative is set up for three years, reflecting the scale of the challenge to mobilize over time a fundamental, system-wide transformation,” said Dame Ellen MacArthur. “It seeks to create a shared sense of direction, to spark a new wave of innovation and to move the plastics value chain — starting with plastic packaging — into a positive spiral of value capture, stronger economics, and better environmental outcomes.”

The New Plastics Economy initiative focuses on five interlinked and mutually reinforcing building blocks:

  • Dialogue mechanism — Bringing together for the first time a group of leading companies and cities across the global value chain to complete collaborative demonstration projects and inform the other building blocks
  • Global Plastics Protocol — Rethinking plastic packaging materials, formats and after-use systems and standards to provide an economically and environmentally attractive target state to innovate towards
  • Innovation moon shots — Mobilizing targeted innovation ‘moon shots’ focused on system-wide solutions that have the potential to scale globally

Click to enlarge.
  • Evidence base — Closing critical knowledge gaps by building an economic and scientific evidence base from which to draw insights
  • Outreach — Engaging a broad set of stakeholders, including citizens, educators, students, policymakers, NGOs and industry associations in the redesign of a better system.

Wendy Schmidt, through The Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fund for Strategic Innovation, is the lead philanthropic partner of the New Plastics Economy initiative, and players of People’s Postcode Lottery (GB) and the MAVA Foundation are philanthropic funders. Amcor, MARS, and Unilever are the initiative’s initial core partners. 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 & Company as knowledge partner.


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