Addressing plastic packaging design flaws

Guest post by Mats Linder, Ph.D, M.Sc, Innovation Program Lead, New Plastics Economy Initiative, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The ubiquity of plastics in our lives is testament to their unrivalled functionality and low cost. Our modern economy could not function as we know it without them. Because they are so useful, their production has increased 20-fold in the last half century, and is expected to double again in the next two decades. Yet today’s plastics system is broken. It is an iconic example of our highly wasteful, take-make-dispose economy and its shortcomings become more apparent by the day (Fig. 1).

Plastics Packaging Design Flaws

Figure 1. It is becoming increasingly evident that the current, linear plastics system is broken. SOURCE: World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking the future of plastics (2016)

Take plastic packaging, the largest application of plastics: only 14 percent is collected after use and much of it simply escapes into the environment. This results not only in a loss of $80 to $120 billion per year to the global economy but, if nothing changes, could lead to there being more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 by weight.

It is highly unlikely that any individual business– or even a whole section of the industry –can address these challenges alone. Highly innovative plastic packaging materials developed to be recyclable will only fit into a workable plastics system if recyclers can on the ground economically collect, sort and recycle them. Equally, great strides in the technology needed to recycle a particular type of plastic is of little use if manufacturers turn away from producing it in favor of alternatives.

To create a plastics system that works, the entire plastics supply chain needs to collaborate around a common vision. The New Plastics Economy, an initiative lead by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, presents such a vision for a system in which plastics never become waste – one consistent with the principles of the circular economy (Fig. 2). To enable it to achieve its core ambitions, one of the initiative’s goals is to mobilize large-scale innovation moonshots.

Plastics Packaging Design Flaws

Figure 2.The New Plastics Economy initiative has three core ambitions. SOURCE: World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking the future of plastics (2016)

The $2 million New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, launched on May 18, aims to take innovations in product packaging design and materials science to a new level – one that inspires a design and innovation movement that keeps plastics in the economy and out of the environment.

The focus of the prize was established by our recently published report The New Plastics Economy –Catalysing Action. It found that, while recycling and reuse can be economically attractive for 70 percent (by weight) of all plastic packaging using current or nascent technologies, 30 percent (or more than half of all items) is by design destined to become waste (Fig. 3). Fundamental redesign and innovation is required to enable the applications covered by these 30 percent to be part of a plastics system that works. The prize is in two parts, each aiming to stimulate a different strand of the new thinking required.

Plastics Packaging Design Flaws

Figure 3.Three strategies to transform the global plastic packaging market. SOURCE: World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy – Catalysing Action (2017)

The first, the Circular Design Challenge managed by OpenIDEO, invites applicants to rethink how we get products to people without generating plastic waste. It focuses on small-format packaging such as shampoo sachets, wrappers, straws and coffee cup lids, which are currently not recycled and often end up in the environment.The power of redesign can be illustrated by the aluminum can, which until the 1970s had a detachable ring-pull that was often discarded. Re-designing the ring-pull to stay on the can has since saved over a million tons of aluminum.

The second, the Circular Materials Challenge managed by NineSigma, looks for ways to make all plastic packaging recyclable or compostable. It focuses on multi-layer, multi-material laminates used in chip bags, pouches and sachets, which will not get recycled unless they are radically re-designed or re-invented.

These laminates already account for 10 to 15 percent of the global plastic packaging market, and are among the fastest growing segments thanks to their excellent and customizable barrier properties and low weight. The catch is that it is technically difficult and very costly to separate the layers, leading to recycling rates that are, and are expected to remain, vanishingly low. As a consequence, multi-layer plastic packaging is among the most prone to end up in the environment.

It follows that, if we want to free our ocean from plastics, we must do more than just clean up beaches or scoop up plastic from the water. We need to fundamentally rethink the way we make, use and re-use plastics so that they don’t become waste in the first place. Getting there is an ambitious task indeed, which will draw on everyone’s creativity, collaboration and resilience. The New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize is a start, designed to spark a flame of innovation that lights the way towards a plastics system that works in the long term.

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About Mats LinderPlastics Packaging Design Flaws

A chemist by training, Mats leads the Innovation Programme within the New Plastics Economy initiative. This role involves identifying and mobilizing catalytic innovation that has the potential to enable plastic system that works. In this role, Mats looks after the $2 million New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, launched on May 18, 2017.

Before joining the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Mats worked as a management consultant with McKinsey & Company. He holds a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and a M.Sc. in chemistry and chemical engineering, both from the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm.


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