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Translating awareness into solutions

Anti-plastic sentiment has clearly grown in recent years and governments are taking note.

China, one of the world’s biggest users of plastic, unveiled a momentous plan to reduce single-use plastics across the country, banning plastic bags in all cities and towns in 2020. Meanwhile, Indonesia has announced plans to cut marine plastic waste by 70% within five years. While ocean plastic remains core to the narrative, the link between plastic and climate change is receiving growing attention. In response, companies have set more ambitious commitments to curb plastic waste, including Unilever’s goal to halve its use of virgin plastic by 2025. Despite this, the attention given to the issue has arguably yet to translate into substantive action, with global plastic production still set to increase and our current recycling system failing to compete with a falling cost of virgin plastic.

2020 Forecast

2020 will prove a pivotal year for plastic action, with renewed calls to take a more systemic approach by tackling the use of plastic and its replacement with sustainable options as opposed to an overreliance on recycling. With a number of national bans and regulations due to come into effect in 2020 and an increased emphasis on producer responsibility, particularly in Europe, companies will come under increased pressure to put into action robust plans to achieve their plastic commitments and invest the necessary resources into implementing those plans.

Signals to Watch

  • After China banned plastic imports in 2018, Malaysia became the top destination for plastic waste from developed nations. In response, Malaysia sent back almost 4,000 tons — or 150 shipping containers — of waste back to its original owners last year.

  • With oil use in cars expected to peak in the mid-2020s, oil companies like Saudi Aramco are investing billions in plastics, where demand is still strong, and plastic production is expected to double in the next 20 years.

  • In 2019 the lifecycle of global plastic production — from extraction to disposal — was equivalent to the impact on the climate of 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal-fired power stations. By 2050, the global plastic footprint will be equivalent to 615 coal plants running at full capacity.

  • Last year saw the price of virgin plastic resin sink, at first to parity with virgin prices, and then below. This trend is driven both by the demand to include recycled plastics in new products and the fact that virgin plastic is becoming cheaper to make due to increased petrochemicals production from the US driven by the shale gas boom.

  • Current recycling infrastructure cannot deliver sufficient resin for companies to hit their increasingly ambitious recycled content goals. For example, if beverage companies were to make all bottles with just 25% recycled content, 27 new recycled PET processing plants would be needed by 2030. With increased investment, McKinsey estimates recycled resins could replace almost a third of virgin plastic by 2030 and nearly 60% by 2050.

  • At least 60 chemical companies are racing to develop chemical recycling technology, a process that can create clean, virgin resin for use in new products. A $120 billion market opportunity for recycled materials awaits successful technologies.

“Each and every company has control over its own packaging portfolio and so changing packaging design to be effectively recyclable is a key intervention they can make now. Decisions like switching to recyclable material and formats, and making the right choices for labels can go a long way to ensuring that the recycling markets we do have in place today can persist and improve. ”
Tristanne Davis, Senior Manager, The Sustainable Packaging Coalition at GreenBlue

Source: Annual CO2 emissions from plastic could grow to more than 2.75 billion tonnes by 2050, Guardian

Advice for Business

  • Set more ambitious commitments to reduce plastic use — such as eliminating non-essential plastic items — and design products so plastic can be reused or recycled.

  • Invest in and partner on solutions to replace plastic with more sustainable alternatives.

  • Join alliances and/or collaborate with the public sector to develop the infrastructure needed to collect and create a secondary market for waste materials.

  • Consider how your plastic strategy aligns with a broader approach to reduce consumption. As a business, how can you align commercial success with encouraging customers to buy less?

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