We must make a circular economy for plastics the new norm

plastic packaging

Sustainability Director at The Consumer Goods Forum, Ignacio Gavilan, explores why plastic isn’t a problem if used in the right way, which is why they’re arguing a plastic circular economy must become the new normal.

Plastic is not necessarily a problem – but plastic waste certainly is. Used in the right way, plastics are an important material which help ensure that consumers have access to the things they need in a safe and convenient way. Yet the alarming amount of plastic materials in our oceans and natural spaces is a sign that our approach towards plastics needs to change.

Our aim must be a world in which there is no new virgin plastic and waste is repurposed into useful new materials. For this to become reality, we need a fundamental shift from the extractive, linear economic model that has been the norm since the Industrial Revolution to a circular one, grounded in the logic that we cannot have infinite resources on a finite planet.

We can do this. The scale of the challenge is unprecedented, but so is our knowledge, ingenuity, and technical expertise. Collaboration and innovation are key. Together, policymakers, industry, and retailers can create this visionary new business model in which unnecessary plastic is eliminated and all unavoidable plastics are safely reused, recycled, or composted. But it will require a new way of thinking.

Without a doubt, industry momentum for action on plastics is growing.

The 41 members of The Consumer Goods Forum’s (CGF) Plastic Waste Coalition of Action – representing more than 10% of the global plastic packaging market – are striving to deliver the solutions that industry can provide.

We know that collaboration is essential. And as part of our ongoing commitment to accelerating action across the industry, CGF’s Global Summit will this month unite senior leaders from hundreds of retailers and manufacturers from around the world, to reflect on how we can keep going further to meet the needs of people and the planet.

We are already seeing the profound positive impact that collective industry action can have through the creation of our Golden Design Rules, which are helping the industry use less and better plastic. These rules, which cover the vast majority of plastic packaging on the market, range from reducing virgin plastic use to removing elements from packaging which decrease its recyclability. Our Coalition members from around the world have committed to adopting them wherever possible by 2025 and to report on their progress.

But too many companies are yet to grasp the huge opportunity the circular economy presents. As things stand, the focus largely remains on reducing plastic usage. While this is a positive start, too many fear the economic implications of more radical change. And yet, those bold enough to lead look set to enjoy both financial and reputational success.

Rethinking our relationship with our resources brings significant economic benefits.

Research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation shows that circular practices could save just a section of the EU manufacturing sector up to $630 billion each year.

Another major report, by McKinsey, outlines how circular systems could boost Europe’s resource productivity by 3% by 2030 – generating cost savings of €600 billion a year and €1.8 trillion more in other economic benefits.

Design will play a crucial role in the transition to a circular economy. The homogenisation of packaging designs, such as an industry-wide standard design for plastic bottles, could enable repurposing. In many situations, waste can be designed out altogether. It’s all about rethinking both products and packaging.

Complex designs can be pared back to their essence and the number of materials and components reduced. This will result in financial savings, simpler supply chains, and more manageable life cycles.

Current innovations are already impressive. In the laundry sector, for example, disruptor brands have ditched the convention of selling liquid detergent in large plastic bottles and have instead created capsules that can be posted through letterboxes in cardboard packaging.

Edible sprays that protect vegetables, like cucumbers, instead of plastic wrap already exist – as do edible sauce sachets made from seaweed. Through collaboration and the prioritisation of investment in research and development, the consumer goods sector could accelerate these trends and generate rafts of revolutionary products that will alter human behaviour.

Consumers are seeking a different relationship with goods and services.

Indeed, new behavioural patterns are already emerging. There is a growing preference for access over ownership, as the success of music and TV streaming services demonstrates.

Going circular facilitates the development of products that appeal to this burgeoning demographic. In scenarios in which products are returned to manufacturers at the end of their life cycle, consumers will become transformed into ‘users’ – creating opportunities for unparalleled customer insights and the ability to deepen brand loyalty.

When it comes to plastics, we can’t carry on as we are. The truth is there are built-in limits on linear consumption. Our current ‘take-make-dispose’ approach is resulting in resource scarcity, volatility and unaffordable prices for our manufacturing base. It exposes businesses to greater risks, squeezing them between higher resource prices and supply disruptions.

If we all broaden our imaginations, we can bring a much more efficient and cost-effective model into being. Environmentally and financially, it will be a win-win.

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