The New Plastics Economy

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The New Plastics Economy

In the 1967 film The Graduate, a businessman offered this unforgettable advice to a confused young college graduate:  “I just want to say one word to you—just one word—‘plastics.’”

Although the scene was meant to be satirical, the advice was sound.  Plastic is a miracle material that is cheaper, lighter, and more pliable than materials like steel, wood, stone, ceramic, or glass.  In its many forms—from polyester to polyethylene to polypropylene to polycarbonate and many others—its development in the twentieth century revolutionized countless industries, transforming everything from the manufacturing of automobiles to the bottling of soft drinks. 

Although the term “plastics” became synonymous with a cheap, throwaway culture, the material itself is remarkably durable.  That is both one of its strengths and its biggest detriment; because it is not biodegradable, discarded plastic is piling up in landfills and littering the world’s oceans.

According to Alan Weisman’s book, The World Without Us, the world’s population has already thrown away 1 billion tons of plastic, and that garbage may not decompose for centuries.1  A study published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B found that plastic now accounts for 50–80 percent of the trash in the sea.2 

In fact, if nothing changes, according to a new report from the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic than fish by weight.3

The report drew on the expertise and contributions of more than forty companies and cities along the global plastics value chain, as well as input from more than 180 experts.

The researchers found that after plastic packaging is used once, 95 percent of its material value, equal to $80–$120 billion per year, is simply thrown away and forever lost to the economy.  The 5 percent recycling rate for plastic packaging is far below the 58 percent recycling rate for paper and the 70–90 percent rate for iron and steel.

Only 14 percent of plastic packaging waste is currently recycled, leading to lowered productivity from the environment and greater greenhouse gas emissions from its production; this amounts to $40 billion per year in costs.  Considering that demand for plastic will increase as hundreds of millions of people in China, India, and other developing countries ascend to the middle class, the plastics industry is expected to consume 20 percent of the world’s oil production by 2050...

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