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Sustainability Within The Plastic Industry: How A Circular Economy Is Changing The Game

Plastic use has become a focus for scrutiny in recent years – The benefits of plastic across all walks of life are clear, but with the impact of plastic waste and production on the environment coupled with consumption of plastics expected to double in the coming 20 years: dynamic change needs to happen in the plastics industry.

Plastic problem goes go beyond littering and leakage. 7 % of crude oil output is used to make plastics and with higher consumption, this also creates a large and growing carbon footprint.

The current linear models of production and consumption of plastics aren’t working, which is why the industry needs to move towards a circular plastics economy.

Is Circular The Answer?

If plastic consumption and production systems were more circular, resource efficient and sustainable – it will enable longer use, reuse and recycling.

Adequate policies and the scaling of circular business models can, together with changes in the behaviour of producers and consumers, enable a more circular and sustainable plastics system.

Policies towards a circular plastics economy has received growing EU attention in recent years. An increasing number of EU initiatives are already in place to address some of these issues.

The European Commission’s strategy on plastics in a circular economy aims to curb plastic leakage into the environment and to ensure that plastic products are designed and produced in a way that allows for circularity, including through reuse and recycling – emphasising for European industries to take the lead.

The strategy introduces four overarching aims to improve:

  • Improve the economics and quality of plastics recycling

  • Curb plastic waste and littering

  • Drive investments and innovation towards circular solutions

  • Harness global action.

To try to influence the industry to lead the way, economic incentives are available to reduce consumption and establish higher collection rates, along with extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes. EPR schemes increase producers’ responsibility when their product turns into waste.

The aim is to incentivise producers to improve collection and waste management of their products and to close the loop through better design and higher recyclability/reusability of their products.

Challenges To Align The Circular Economy Globally

Coordinated action is needed to enable best practice to be shared across industry value chains, countries and regions and to scale up circular and more sustainable plastics initiatives.

The ‘New Plastics Economy’: a vision for an economy in which plastics never become waste Launched by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2016, the New Plastics Economy initiative envisages a circular economy in which plastics never become waste. Instead, unnecessary plastics should be abolished, and innovation should ensure that all necessary plastics can be circulated within the economy through reuse, recycling or composting. For plastic packaging specifically, the initiative defines a circular economy by the following six characteristics:

  1. Eliminating problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging through redesign, innovation and new delivery models is a priority.

  2. Reuse models are applied when relevant, reducing the need for single-use packaging.

  3. All plastic packaging is 100 % reusable, recyclable or compostable.

  4. All plastic packaging is reused, recycled or composted in practice.

  5. The use of plastic is fully decoupled from the consumption of finite resources.

  6. All plastic packaging is free of hazardous chemicals, and the health, safety and rights of all people involved are respected.

Together with a wide set of stakeholders, the initiative takes a systemic approach to creating a shared vision and a common set of actions that can set an irreversible path towards creating the New Plastics Economy. It does so through several accompanying initiatives, such as the Global Commitment initiative, which was launched in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme.

The Global Commitment initiative gathers more than 450 businesses, governments and organisations behind a set of targets aimed at tackling plastic waste and pollution at its source by 2025. To contribute to reaching these targets across all regions, the Plastics Pact network brings together national and regional initiatives that implement solutions towards a circular plastics economy. The network also works as a platform for sharing knowledge and best practices related to the transformation of the plastics system.

Current business models in the plastics industry are dominated by traditional and very linear models, with little or no focus on circularity.

The many production phases related to plastics involve companies of many different sizes operating in Europe and elsewhere, and the same is the case in the waste management phase.

Moving towards more circular and sustainable business models in the plastics production and consumption system — often enabled through social and technological innovation — has huge potential for reducing environmental and climate impacts.

During resource extraction and use of materials for plastic production, innovation and circular business models can enable a gradual move from sourcing entirely virgin raw materials to renewable resources and secondary resources from the recycling and recovery of plastics.

More circular product design is also important. The choice and organisation of materials, including plastics, are the main determining factors for product and material circularity.

Basically, the aim should be to keep the materials in the economy for as long as possible.

Eastman Chemical

Eastman are driving change by targeting non-recycled materials and leveraging their molecular recycling technologies to keep these materials in use by recycling them into new materials. That means they’re moving from a linear economy (take, make, consume, waste) to a circular economy (make, use, reuse, remake, recycle).

Eastman can’t solve the global plastic waste problem alone. That’s why they’re connecting with customers, non-government organizations, policymakers, elected officials, the waste industry, and others to work toward a more sustainable future.

They’re creating innovative ways to preserve the world’s limited natural resources by transforming plastic waste into new materials.

In addition to membership in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, they have partnered with two organizations dedicated to a future where plastic never becomes waste: the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment and the U.S. Plastics Pact.

At the heart of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment is a vision of a circular economy for plastic in which it never becomes waste. Signatories commit to three actions to realize this vision:

  • Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items.

  • Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable.

  • Circulate all used plastic items to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

The U.S. Plastics Pact is a collaborative effort led by The Recycling Partnership and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Members are determined to reach four ambitious goals by 2025:

  • Define and eliminate all problematic or unnecessary packaging.

  • Make all plastic packaging 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable.

  • Effectively recycle or compost 50% of plastic packaging.

  • Average 30% recycled or responsibly sourced biobased content.

They are revolutionizing their own materials to give them an infinite life and richer purpose using their two Advanced Circular Recycling technologies—carbon renewal and polyester renewal.

As Eastman pioneers this approach, it begs the question as to what other developments and innovations are other companies in the industry are doing to put sustainability as a higher priority.

Looking Ahead

Innovation, business models, societal awareness and new policies are gradually changing the way we produce, use, recycle and dispose of plastics. Many barriers to achieving circular and more sustainable production and consumption of plastics remain.

Given the multiple environmental and climate impacts that exist across the life cycle of plastics, the shift towards a circular economy requires circular business models, changed consumption patterns and policies.


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