Washington — A new report claims that by the middle of this century there will more plastic than fish, by weight, in the world's oceans. But from the plastics industry perspective, it's really revenue swimming away.
The World Economic Forum/Ellen MacArthur Foundation study, “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics,” released at WEF's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, says that while delivering many benefits, “the current plastics economy has drawbacks that are becoming more apparent by the day.”
The report's projections estimate that “by 2050 oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish [by weight], and the entire plastics industry will consume 20 percent of total oil production and 15 percent of the annual carbon budget. In this context, an opportunity beckons for the plastics value chain to deliver better system-wide economic and environmental outcomes, while continuing to harness the benefits of plastic packaging.”
The 118-page report claims that 95 percent of plastic packaging — worth between $80 and $120 billion — is lost to the economy every year.
“A staggering 32 percent of plastic packaging escapes collection systems,” it says, “generating significant economic costs by reducing the productivity of vital natural systems such as the ocean and clogging urban infrastructure.”
Plastic packaging heavy hitters, from Unilever and Coca-Cola to Nestle and Sealed Air, were part of the study, as well as scores of academics, environmentalists and waste management experts. But the growing peril of marine plastics is hardly news to anyone in the plastics industry, especially on the packaging side.
The American Chemistry Council noted in a Jan. 19 statement that the U.S. plastics industry already is working to increase recycling — with 6 billion pounds recycled annually now — and recover energy from plastics that cannot be easily recycled.
“Plastics makers actively support programs designed to dramatically increase plastics recycling, especially for newer categories such as rigid plastics and film,” ACC said, citing the international Declaration for Solutions on Marine Litter, a 2011 manifesto signed by more than 60 plastics industry-related associations in 34 countries that has helped launch more than 185 projects addressing marine litter, as an effort to do something about the problem.
“If anyone hates seeing these materials wasted, it's the plastics industry, and conversely, no industry wants to see these materials put to their highest, best use more than we do,” said Patty Long, senior vice president of industry affairs at the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. “That's why SPI is engaging the entire plastics supply chain to find, develop and implement market-driven solutions to the collection challenges that prevent plastic materials from having more than one life, whether that's through recycling, energy conversion or any other technology that derives value from plastics that would otherwise become litter or landfill fodder.
“We look forward to working with world policymakers and thought leaders to move toward a world in which none of these valuable materials are ever wasted,” she said.
Solving the problem