Davos report calls for boosting plastics recycling to 70 percent

18 January 2017

A new report from the Davos World Economic Forum gathering, launched with the support of some large companies in the plastics industry, is calling for strategies to dramatically increase recycling of plastic packaging — from 14 percent today to 70 percent.

The Jan. 16 report, “The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action” from the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, argues for a major rethink of plastic packaging and bills itself as a “transition strategy for better package design and increased recycling rates.”

The American Chemistry Council, in a statement, said it welcomed that the report recognized benefits of plastics, but ACC argued that issues like resource efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions should be taken more into account when setting policy.

A press release from the WEF says the report is endorsed by over 40 industry leaders, including Amcor Ltd. CEO Ron Delia, Dow Chemical Co. Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris and Alexander Baumgartner, CEO of Constantia Flexibles.

The report was released a day ahead of the WEF’s annual meeting in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland.

It doesn’t make specific recommendations on how to boost recycling, but raises many topics, including replacing single-use plastic bags with reusable bags, looking at container deposits and using more large returnable rigid packaging in shipping.

The group said that over the next year it would launch two “global innovation challenges” to kick-start the redesign of packaging, and would start to develop a “Global Plastics Protocol” for packaging design.

“This could drive systemic change,” said Dominic Waughray, a member of the World Economic Forum’s executive committee. “The plan puts innovation at the heart of a strategy that could shift the entire system while unlocking a billion dollar business opportunity. Alignment along value chains and between the public and private sector is key to this.”

More specifically, the group breaks down plastic packaging into three segments:

• It said that 50 percent of plastics packaging today could be “profitably recycled” if improvements are made to packaging design and waste management systems.

• A further 20 percent of plastic packaging could be profitably reused, “for example by replacing single-use plastic bags with re-usable alternatives or designing innovative packaging models based on product refills.”

• Finally, it suggests that 30 percent of plastic packaging, such as multi-material wrappers, are particularly problematic for recycling.

'Uncommon materials'

“Without fundamental redesign and innovation, the remaining 30 percent of plastic packaging (by weight) will never be recycled and the equivalent of 10 billion garbage bags per year will be destined to landfill or incineration,” the report said.

The report also singled out what it called three “uncommon materials” in plastic packaging — expanded polystyrene, polystyrene and PVC — and said that while they are often technically recyclable they may not be economically recyclable because of their small volumes.

“PVC, PS, and EPS stand out as uncommon plastic packaging materials to focus on first,” the report said. “Dealing with these three would make a huge impact on this segment. Their low volumes lead to poor outcomes: less than 5 percent of PVC packaging is recycled in Europe, and PS and EPS are rarely sorted from household waste and recycled.”The focus on particular resins, however, was criticized by the American Chemistry Council.

“Looking ahead, discussions building on this report would benefit from focusing less on specific resins and more on the functionality of the package in its specific use,” said Steve Russell, vice president of ACC’s Plastics Division.

ACC cited another study which said that switching from plastics to alternatives would quadruple environmental costs, to $533 billion a year.

“Life cycle studies consistently find that plastic packaging delivers more food and other products with significantly less environmental impacts than alternatives,” ACC said.

The report argued that while plastics packaging is an “integral part of the global economy and provides it with many benefits,” concerns are growing over both litter, including in oceans and waterways, and the greenhouse gas emissions from increased use of plastics.

“For these reasons, plastics and plastic packaging have gradually morphed from a fringe to a mainstream issue,” the report said.

It’s a more action-oriented follow-up to a January 2016 report from the group that predicted that by 2050, the world could see more plastic than fish in the sea, by weight.In comments distributed with the Jan. 16 report, the groups said more than 40 industry leaders endorsed the report.

“The New Plastics Economy report calls attention to the vast amount of plastic packaging material that is lost to the economy after only a single use,” said Amcor’s Delia. “Amcor understands the challenge, but we also see a tremendous opportunity to continually develop packaging that is better for the environment throughout its life: production, use and re-use.”