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HomeSpecial IssuesSpecial Issue 193. Reinventing the future of plasticReinventing the future of plastic

3. Reinventing the future of plastic

Reinventing the future of plastic

Fanny Arnaud
p. 76-77

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1At a time when plastic is under the spotlight, two seemingly opposed solutions are often mentioned. Some people dream of a deplastified world, where plastic is replaced by alternative materials. Many of these alternatives are yet to be invented, but one of the solutions proposed is to boost the amount of bio-sourced plastic produced (bio-PE, bio-PET etc.). Although more of this material has been produced in recent years, it remains controversial as it uses farm land to grow non-food goods but does not address the environmental impact of managing the resultant waste.

2Indeed, the idea of systematically replacing plastics is not as simple as it seems: product life cycle analyses show that in some cases plastic is the best solution. For instance, replacing airline meal trays, formerly made of metal, with plastic produces major savings in terms of CO2 and costs.

3On the other hand, organizations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation feel that the question of plastic is emblematic of a need to move beyond the throwaway society with its take-make-dispose mantra, aiming instead to establish a circular economy that uses resources more responsibly; 95% of the value embedded in plastic packaging materials is lost every year, worth somewhere between $80 billion and $120 billion.

4How can we wean ourselves from a society of waste to a society of resources? This entails reimagining our systems from top to bottom, from how objects are designed to how their end of life is managed. These are innovations that impact the waste management value chain and will require us to look afresh at the skills and professions needed to deliver a circular economy. For example, robots are already used, at some sites, to optimize sorting and reduce the physical demands on operators. Blockchain can be used to set up digital platforms that make it easier to integrate the informal sector, a key link in the waste recycling chain in emerging economies, as shown by Plastic Bank in Haiti and the Philippines. This technology is win-win: less waste dumped in the sea and a source of revenue for the poorest.

5Mobilizing stakeholders is central to the success of changing the economic model to one with a more circular approach. Innovative projects like Project STOP in Indonesia show how important it is to reach out to all stakeholders in a territory in order to develop efficient and effective recycling solutions. Consumers too are critical actors in terms of their consumption choices and waste-sorting practices. For example, Yoyo is a French startup that rewards citizens who improve their waste sorting.

6Plastic pollution clearly poses the question of how to support growth in emerging economies, where frenetic development tends to occur without the requisite wastemanagement infrastructure being able to keep up. Many stakeholders are working to improve installations used to collect, store and process plastic waste, in particular in economies where large amounts of plastics leach into nature. For example, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, announced in January 2019 with backing from 30-odd major global companies, is committed to investing over $1 billion – and hopes to hit $1.5 billion, over the next five years – to help roll out solutions to reduce and manage plastic waste and promote recycling.

7Yet does homo detritus, the hidden face of homo economicus, really believe the planet can be saved simply by throwing things into the correct bin? Solving the plastic pollution conundrum requires more than better management of waste and the adoption of a circular economy. It is predicated on the question of fighting poverty and access to essential services in many emerging economies. A large portion of plastic waste in these countries comes from single-dose sachets of everyday items (shampoo, washing products, coffee, etc.), millions of which are sold every day. Similarly, vast numbers of plastic bottles are sold in emerging economies because of a shortage of access to quality drinking water.

8The current controversy about plastic requires us, yet again, to look afresh at how we produce and consume, and at our global lifestyles in the broadest sense.

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Bibliographical reference

Fanny Arnaud, « Reinventing the future of plastic », Field Actions Science Reports, Special Issue 19 | 2019, 76-77.

Electronic reference

Fanny Arnaud, « Reinventing the future of plastic », Field Actions Science Reports [Online], Special Issue 19 | 2019, Online since 01 March 2019, connection on 23 October 2020. URL :

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Fanny Arnaud

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