The scale of global efforts to prevent plastic pollution has been revealed in a new report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme. 

It comes 12 months after the launch of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which set out a circular economy vision for plastic.Launched in October 2018, the Global Commitment now has over 400 organisations committed to eliminating problematic and unnecessary plastic packaging, and innovating so that all plastic packaging is 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable, and can be safely and easily circulated without becoming waste or pollution.

Promising early progress

This report provides transparency on how almost 200 businesses and governments are changing their plastic production and use to achieve this. It shows promising early progress.

Unilever has announced it will reduce its use of virgin plastic in packaging by 50% and Mars, Incorporated said it will make virgin plastic reductions of 25% by 2025. PepsiCo aims to reduce the use of virgin plastic in its beverage business by 20% by 2025. These are absolute terms reductions against today’s volumes.

Some of the most commonly identified problematic plastic items and materials are being eliminated at scale. For example, around 70% of relevant business signatories are eliminating single-use straws, carrier bags and carbon black plastics, and around 80% are eliminating PVC from their packaging. Government signatories such as France, Rwanda, the UK, and the cities of São Paulo (Brazil) and Austin (USA), to name a few, are among those putting in place a diverse set of policy measures that go beyond bans, and include public procurement and extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes, awareness campaigns, fiscal measures, and incentives for research and development.

Analysis carried out for the report shows that on average around 60% of business signatories’ plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable today. Through the Global Commitment they have committed to make this 100% by 2025.

Packaged goods and retail signatories have pledged to increase recycled plastic in their packaging more than five-fold, from 4% to 22%, by 2025. The signatories’ total demand for recycled content in packaging by 2025 will be more than 5 million tonnes annually, equivalent to keeping 25 million barrels of oil in the ground every year.Significant investments are being made to achieve these targets. Leading plastics producer Indorama Ventures has pledged to invest USD 1.5 billion towards achieving its target of producing at least 750,000 tonnes of recycled PET per annum by 2025. The UK Government is mobilising approximately GBP 3 billion towards improving local collection and recycling infrastructure and packaging innovation through public-private finance initiatives. In addition, recycling companies that have signed the Global Commitment have committed to collectively quadruple the amount of recycled plastics they produce by 2025.

Sander Defruyt, New Plastics Economy lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, said: “Around the world people are calling for businesses and governments to take action to stop plastic pollution. Leading businesses and governments stepped forward by signing the Global Commitment and we can now see promising early progress. This includes major commitments to reduce the use of virgin plastic, the introduction of reuse pilot projects, and unprecedented demand for recycled plastic in packaging. But there is a long way to go and it is crucial those efforts are accelerated and scaled, and more businesses and governments take action to eliminate plastic pollution at the source.”

More elimination and reuse needed

To tackle plastic waste and pollution we must move beyond recycling and the elimination of only the most commonly identified problematic packaging. Through innovation, product and supply chain redesign, and new reuse business models, companies can reduce their plastic packaging use, while unlocking new economic opportunities.

For example more than 40 signatory companies are piloting reuse schemes. Today however, less than 3% of plastic packaging in the signatory group is reusable, indicating a significant but underexplored opportunity. Analysis by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has shown that replacing just 20% of single use plastic packaging with reusable alternatives offers an opportunity worth at least USD 10 billion.

Government signatories are supporting reuse schemes with public awareness campaigns, extended producer responsibility or public-private collaborations.Major investment, innovation, and transformation programmes need to be developed, and more businesses and governments are urged to join the Global Commitment to ensure impact can be made at scale.

UN Environment Programme Executive Director, Inger Andersen, said: “Addressing plastic pollution requires a fundamental system shift, from a linear to a circular economy for plastic, which is at the core of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. The 2019 Progress Report shows how leading businesses and governments are taking actions in such a systemic way, thus demonstrating this makes business and political sense. The benefits represent a huge opportunity, and the concerted approach leaves no excuses not to act. We need all actors to work together in the plastic pollution crisis: UN Environment Programme calls on all relevant businesses and governments to join the Global Commitment to fight against plastic pollution as part of the implementation plan ‘Towards a pollution-free planet’.”

The New Plastics Economy will publish the next Global Commitment progress report in Autumn 2020, and every year following up to 2025.