Ellen MacArthur Foundation launches ‘practical guide’ to eliminating plastic pollution

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has published a practical guide to eliminating plastic pollution through circular economy solutions.

Upstream Innovation: A guide to packaging solutions is accompanied by a host of assets including a case study database, a workshop toolkit, videos and more, created by the Foundation’s New Plastics Economy innovation team to help anyone involved in packaging creation to develop upstream solutions that prevent plastic waste and pollution.

The Upstream Innovation guide’s release comes just weeks after the Foundation, in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme, published its second New Plastics Economy Global Commitment Progress Report, which made it clear that businesses would need to step up their elimination and reuse efforts if they were to meet their 2025 targets to address plastic pollution.

By focusing more of their efforts on upstream innovation – rather than just downstream activity such as waste management – businesses can prevent waste from ever being created, the Foundations says.

The circular economy allows us to redesign the entire plastics system to not only overcome the global challenge of plastic pollution, but to do so in a way that allows us to build better growth and create solutions at speed and scale.

The guide covers: the mindset needed for upstream innovation; examples and guidance on applying upstream innovation to achieve three circular economy strategies –  Elimination, Reuse, and Material Circulation; and guidance on how to support and make decisions throughout the upstream innovation process.

More than 110 examples, including from Tesco, Lush, Walmart, and Abel & Cole, demonstrate how businesses around the world are using circular economy solutions across a range of sectors.

Sara Wingstrand, Innovation Programme Manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, said: “We cannot recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis, we need to move upstream and look at what is put on the market in the first place, so we can eliminate waste, not simply manage it better.

“The circular economy allows us to redesign the entire plastics system to not only overcome the global challenge of plastic pollution, but to do so in a way that allows us to build better growth and create solutions at speed and scale. Designers and businesses are at the heart of this transition and we hope this guide will help them on that journey.”

Case studies 


  • Tesco has removed plastic film from multi-buy tins (such as soups, beans, and tuna), eliminating 67 million pieces of film per year, equivalent to 350 tonnes.
  • Apeel has created anedible coating made from plant-based materials that can extend the shelf-life of fresh fruit and vegetables without the need for packaging. The company continues to grow, having launched lines with retailers including Walmart, Edeka and Kroger.
  • Lush has redesigned its liquid personal care products to concentrated solid formulations eliminating the need for packaging. Currently, around 65% of Lush’s product range is ‘naked’. Since 2005, Lush has sold nearly 50 million naked shampoo bars globally, eliminating over 150 million plastic shampoo bottles. Additionally, the Lush Labs app product recognition feature Lush Lens is used in store to access interactive content such as ingredients or directions for use, removing the need for labelling and packaging.


  • Unilever and Walmart de México y Centroamérica have introduced refill stations at ten Walmart stores in Mexico to help customers dispense shampoo into reusable aluminium bottles. Following a successful three-month trial period, Walmart aim to scale this initiative during 2021.
  • Algramõ uses its smart dispensing machines and RFID chipped packaging to help customers return their packaging in exchange for money deposited automatically via an app. Unilever’s homecare brands OMO and Quix are available via Algramõ. The model has thrived during 2020, as eCommerce shopping rates increased, and the pilot has scaled up the number of refill tricycles from one to eight in order to meet consumer demand for home refill of Unilever’s laundry and cleaning products.
  • Abel & Cole provides a service delivering dried foods in reusable jars. Once the food is decanted, the packaging is returned upon the next delivery. In return, for customers signing up to the annual membership scheme ‘Club Zero’, the tenth offering will be refilled and reused free of charge.

Material circulation

  • JOI has re-thought its product, delivering nut paste used for making nut milk as a solid, in easy-to-recycle tubs, helping to eliminate the need for multi-material carton packaging. The concentrate not only reduces packaging waste, but also food waste, allowing users to meet their desired quantity.
  • Sprite has begun to transition away from its iconic green bottle to a clear bottle in many markets to improve its value during recycling. This is then utilised at scale, for example in Southeast Asia clear PET bottles sell for an average of USD 84 per tonne more than coloured bottles, a 35% increase. Some Sprite bottles are now also being made from 100% recycled PET.
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