The New Plastics Economy report struggles to say something genuinely new
25th January 2016
The circular economy has been so extensively studied over recent years, at least at the level of principles and policies that coming up with fresh and novel angles is becoming increasingly difficult. For all the qualities we have come to expect – comprehensive, well written, full of interesting material flow and economic data difficult to obtain elsewhere – the latest report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy, joins its previous report Growth Within: A circular economy vision for a competitive Europe in struggling to say something genuinely new.
Its core message, that we need a “fundamental rethink for plastics packaging and plastics in general”, as well as the “new approach” the report purports to offer, has been anticipated by, for example, the European Commission’s Green Paper On a European Strategy on Plastic Waste in the Environment (2013) and by its revised circular economy package – in which plastics is identified as a priority waste stream.
As with the Growth report, the problem lies not in the recommendations themselves, but in their generality. For example, who is to “establish [a] global plastics protocol and coordinate large-scale pilots and demonstration projects”? Because we don’t have global governance, global protocols of any sort are notoriously difficult to agree, implement and police, as the climate change negotiations have demonstrated. Research and development in a mature market is usually done in order to establish a competitive edge, so unless open innovation is adopted by the plastics industry as an agreed principle, coordination of individual projects and knowledge-sharing between companies will be nearly impossible. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), one of the few industry-led organisations with a global reach, might well have a role here.
It would be foolish to gainsay the important contribution reports like these make to the circular economy debate, if only to heighten awareness among policymakers and captains of industry, to kick-start appropriate policy interventions, and influence consumer behaviour (for example through better labelling).
Staying in Europe, a window of opportunity presents itself to sharpen the Foundation’s messages. The Foundation could consider working up an addendum to their new report, specifically to inform the plastics strategy currently being developed by the European Commission. Recommendations couched in terms of “what – why – who – when” would enhance a report that already has value to the Commission in the information that it contains.