“We need to raise our level of ambition and match it with bold and urgent action.”
- Dame Ellen MacArthur
On the 23rd of July 2020, The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ released Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution - one of the most analytically robust studies ever produced on ocean plastics. Thought partners were the University of Oxford, University of Leeds, Common Seas, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
This is our perspective on the study’s findings and what businesses and governments must do now to address them.
Breaking the Plastic Wave shows that, if we fail to act, by 2040:
This is in line with our 2016 analysis, which showed there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
The problem starts long before plastic reaches our oceans and so must the solutions.
Until now, many efforts to tackle plastic pollution have focused narrowly on improving waste management or clean-ups. Others have focused only on bans and plastic reduction. None of these will work in isolation. We cannot recycle our way out of plastic pollution, and neither can we simply reduce our way out of it.
Breaking the Plastic Wave shows that we must take a comprehensive circular economy approach. We must prioritise rethinking what is put on the market, whilst also rapidly increasing our ability to keep it in the loop after it has been used.
Scenarios focused on collection, recycling and disposal alone fall short
Scaling collection, recycling and disposal is limited by the realistic speed of infrastructure development, esp. in the Global South. Connecting everyone to formal collection systems would require connecting over 500,000 people every single day between today and 2040.
These scenarios fail to reduce the annual amount of plastics entering our oceans in 2040 below 2016 levels, even with the most aggressive, but realistic pace of infrastructure development.
By 2040 these scenarios are USD 80-180 bln per annum more expensive compared to a comprehensive circular economy approach, while resulting in worse environmental and social outcomes.
These scenarios lead to around 15% higher GHG emissions compared to a comprehensive circular economy approach and lock us in into a system relying on long-term stable flows of fossil fuel feedstocks.
The circular economy considers every stage of a product’s journey – before and after it reaches the customer. This approach is not only vital to stop plastic pollution, but as the study shows, it offers the strongest economic, social, and climate benefits.
Compared with business-as-usual, a circular economy has the potential to reduce the annual volume of plastics entering our oceans by 80%, generate savings of USD 200 bn per year, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25%, and create 700,000 net additional jobs by 2040.
Breaking the Plastic Wave recognises the need to build on current work and highlights the New Plastics Economy and other ambitious initiatives as a significant step.
The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment and Plastics Pact network already unite more than 850 organisations behind a common vision, and actionable targets, setting a clear direction and minimum ambition level to build on for 2025. We urge those outside this growing community to join this international effort. A binding global agreement that builds on the vision of a circular economy for plastic could also ensure a unified international response to plastic pollution that matches the scale of the problem.
To respond to the devastating impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, without turning our attention away from other global challenges such as plastic pollution and climate change, we must accelerate the transition to a circular economy.
Breaking the Plastic Wave shows implementation delay of five years would result in an additional 80m tonnes of plastic entering our oceans between now and 2040. While this report shows delay today could lead to disaster tomorrow, it also shows that through the circular economy we have an opportunity to tackle plastic pollution at the source, while unlocking new opportunities for business.
The Global Commitment and Plastics Pact network set a clear direction. However, we recognise we need to raise the ambition level further, for 2025 and beyond. We call on businesses and governments to:
ELIMINATE: Set absolute (virgin) plastic reduction targets, underpinned by increased efforts on elimination and reuse
INNOVATE: Embark on a well-funded R&D agenda, focused on solutions such as new delivery models and new materials, in particular for flexible plastic and multi-materials (representing 80% of remaining macroplastics leakage into the ocean in 2040)
CIRCULATE: Set up mechanisms that improve the economics of recycling and provide stable, recurring funding of collection and recycling where industry pays its fair share, for example through Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes or equivalent industry-led initiatives
As we look for ways to recover from the economic shock of coronavirus, the circular economy presents opportunities to build a more resilient and regenerative economy that is better than the one we had; addressing global challenges, such as plastic pollution and climate change, while helping us restore the environment, create jobs, and benefit society.
The comprehensive circular economy approach set out here, which considers every stage of a product’s journey – before and after it reaches the customer – is not only vital to stopping plastic pollution, but as the study shows, it offers the strongest economic, social, and climate benefits. Compared with business-as-usual, the circular economy has the potential to generate savings of USD 200 billion per year, reduce greenhouse gases by 25%, and create 700,000 net additional jobs by 2040, making it a clear opportunity to build back better.
Governments and businesses have shown sustained commitment to building a circular economy for plastic in recent years. This momentum can now be harnessed to transform the plastic system.
Available downloads, including the Breaking the Plastic Wave study and distilled report, along with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's perspective PDF and other resources: