Moving towards a New Plastic Economy

Extended Producers Responsibility contributes to increasing resource efficiency and achieving a circular economy in plastic management. However, it requires concerted efforts within a well formulated strategy framework, Jürgen Hannak (adelphi) said at the World Sustainable Development Summit 2018.


Global production of plastics has grown rapidly since the middle of the previous century. It culminated in about 311 million tonnes by 2014 – a twentyfold increase from 1960 levels. Given the importance of this material for production and consumption systems of modern societies, it is estimated that global annual production will reach a staggering 1.2 billion tonnes by 2050. The largest part of plastics on the market (estimated at more than 90%) are produced from fossil feedstock, causing CO2-equivalents of approximately 400 million tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2012. If this trend continues, production of plastics could account for 20% of the global oil consumption and 15% of the global carbon emissions by 2050.

Economy and ecosystem suffer from insufficient recycling

A significant fraction of plastic waste is generated due to its versatile and widespread application as packaging material of which mere 14% are collected for recycling at a global scale. Overall, it is estimated that 95% material value is lost to the economy after a short single-use phase. That leads to annually economic losses of 80 to 120 billion USD. In addition to the economic implications, plastic pollution has also become a severe threat to the well-being of global marine ecosystems: if business-as-usual continues, it is projected that by 2025 there will be one tonne of plastics for every three tonnes of fish in the oceans with the accumulated weight of plastics matching that of fish by 2050. Against this backdrop of developments, concerted global actions are needed in order to meet countries’ obligations under the Paris Agreement and the UN global sustainable consumption and production (SCP) agenda.

World Sustainable Development Summit: “Towards Resource Efficient Management of Plastic Waste”

Under the overall theme “Partnerships for a Resilient Planet” nearly 9600 delegates from more than 41 countries congregated at the World Sustainable Development Summit 2018 in New Delhi, India. They exchanged expert experiences, built partnerships, imbibed solutions for efficient use of resources as well as discussed and developed strategies with the aim of accelerating action towards sustainable development including climate change. As part of the summit`s proceedings, the thematic session “Towards Resource Efficient Management of Plastic Waste”, organised by the EU Resource Efficiency Initiative (EU-REI) for India, with the help of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and adelphi, brought together an expert panel, representing policy makers, research, industry and informal sector from Europe and India. Under the moderation of the adelphi senior project manager Dr. Jürgen Hannak, the participants reflected on innovative concepts and approaches which would help to deal with the legacy and impacts of plastic to date, prevent and reduce risk of a further aggravation of the current situation, as well as arrive at a sustainable future solution in the context of new plastic economy.

In India, the consumption of plastics amounts to some 12.8 million tonnes annually. Due to the country’s highly dynamic market environment, processing volumes of plastics are expected to grow by a compound annual growth rate of above 10%. To tackle the growing amounts of plastic waste in both urban and rural areas, the Government of India has issued in 2016 the new Plastic Waste Management Rules. A core feature of this legislation is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) according to which producers are mandated to establish collection systems for generated waste in close collaboration with State Urban Development Departments. While some progress has been achieved, further implementation requires international collaboration to enhance domestic capacities and learn from international best practices.

EU develops vision for a smart, innovative and sustainable plastics industry

In the European Union, the transition towards a new plastic economy was recently initiated by the publication of a new European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy on January 16th 2018. As part of this strategy, the EU has developed a vision for “a smart, innovative and sustainable plastics industry”. It is optimised along the entire lifecycle (including design, production, reuse, repair, and recycling) and will help to cut greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on imported fossil fuels. Further, the strategy seeks to promote sustainable production and consumption patterns of plastics among EU citizens, governments and industries by proposing a comprehensive set of policy measures. These are fostering collaboration both at the European level and in the international arena.

Private sector as a key success factor

While policies can set the framework conditions for the transition towards a circular and resource efficient plastics economy, involvement of the private sector is a key success factor and must not be neglected. Recently, during the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, eleven leading brands, retailers and packaging companies committed to work towards 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025. Such initiatives are complemented by actions of individual companies such as Coca-Cola Hindustan Ltd. which in India is contributing to not only a reduction of the per capita consumption of plastic waste but also enhancing plastic waste collection and recycling. Complementing such initiatives, ACC Ltd., one of the largest producers of cement in India, plays an important role in the effective reduction of plastic waste volumes through co-processing the same in their cement kilns as well as exploring innovative ways towards utilising plastic waste as construction related by-products under the Geocycle brand. From managing around 25000 tons of plastic waste in 2012, ACC is likely to increase the volume from currently 82000 tons to around 120000 tons a year in near future. For achieving reasonable economies of scale for the approaches discussed during the EU-REI thematic session, the involvement of informal sector (such as the waste collection entrepreneurs under Kabadiwalla Connect) in plastic waste management remains crucial to increasing collection rates.

Consumer need to change behaviour

In this connection, the rise of information technology contributes towards leveraging the role of informal sector. Finally, in achieving resource efficiency and circular economy in plastic, the individual consumers will play a decisive role. Awareness-raising amongst consumers and nudging them towards behavioural changes, while keeping the economic realities in mind, will be crucial to align the concerted efforts by all players in the way forward within a well formulated strategy framework.

Dr. Jürgen Hannak is a senior project manager at adelphi providing leadership in the topic areas of sustainability management and resource efficiency. He has over 25 years of experience working both domestically and abroad.

The World Sustainable Development Summit (WSDS) is The Energy and Resources Institute's annual flagship event.