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The urgency around plastics in 3 numbers

As we grow our aspirations, we cannot afford to let our determination or pace falter.

Plastics of all sorts, single use

This article originally appeared in our Circularity Weekly newsletter. Subscribe here

It’s been a mere week since Circularity 21 wrapped, and I’m still reveling and reflecting. 

Looking back on the game-changing year that divided Circularity 20 from 21, I’m proud of the ambition and momentum our community continues to build. Based on the inspiring conversations I overheard and engaged in, I’m pleased to say our collective aspirations have moved well beyond plastics and packaging — an oft-used entry point into circular conversations — to include product design, business model innovation, systems change and beyond. 

While I’m delighted that our aim is moving ever higher on the waste hierarchy, several data points have rattled around my head since the event’s closing. These statistics have reinvigorated my sense of urgency around the plastics crisis and reminded me of the importance of persistence as we reduce plastic waste and work towards a circular economy for this ubiquitous material.

As we grow our aspirations, we cannot afford to let our determination or pace falter. Here are three numbers overheard at Circularity 21 that remind us why: 

3.5 years until 2025 

That leaves just 42 months to accomplish the extensive system shifts that 2025 packaging goals require. 

Perhaps the most ambitious of these commitments (in North America at least) have been outlined and agreed upon by the 98 companies and organizations that comprise the U.S. Plastics Pact.

The pact, which joins an 11-pact network underneath the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) Global Commitment, has committed to four critical goals by 2025: eliminating problematic and unnecessary plastics; achieving 100 percent reusable, compostable or recyclable packaging; recycling or composting 50 percent of all plastic packaging; and averaging 30 percent recycled or responsibly sourced biobased content. 

Taken together, these goals require significant heavy lifting — everything from eliminating and redesigning packaging at the company level, to building composting and recycling infrastructure on the national level, to shifting economics and ensuring recycled content availability at the market level. 

Beyond this, there’s the work of engaging the thousands of organizations that have not signed on to the pact or created their own packaging commitments. "As thrilled and energized as we are having almost 100 pact members, we know that is a drop in the ocean when it comes to the U.S. plastic packaging landscape and value chain," noted Emily Tipaldo, executive director of the U.S. Plastics Pact at Circularity 21. Notably missing from the country’s pact’s network are the top 10 polymer producers in the U.S., several of the world’s worst plastic polluters and hundreds of Fortune 500 companies. 

There’s much to do in a limited amount of time (making the pact’s newly released Roadmap to 2025 a critical tool in achieving these goals).

0 packaging EPR laws in the U.S. 

While the U.S. has 122 extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws on the books for varying goods and materials, none of them pertain to plastics and packaging. 

If we hope to accomplish a circular economy for plastics, this status quo cannot stand. "I don’t see how we’re going to get to 2025 packaging goals without EPR, I don’t think it will be possible," noted Sydney Harris, senior associate of policy and programs at the Product Stewardship Institute. As Sara Wingstrand, program manager for the new plastics economy at EMF, added: "The economics don’t stand up." 

In order to effectively manage plastic waste, we need funding that is dedicated, ongoing and sufficient. EPR legislation has proven to accomplish this at scale in other nations across the globe and (as an added bonus) can lead to upstream innovations, system efficiency, transparency and awareness. That’s why EMF has released a position paper calling EPR "a necessary part of the solution to packaging waste and pollution." 

Luckily, more than 100 businesses have endorsed EMF’s position paper, nearly a dozen states have packaging EPR bills under consideration and the proposed Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would establish a national EPR program. 

All these developments have led some to theorize that 2021 could be the year for packaging EPR in the U.S. Until these bills are signed, we cannot let up on the pressure. 

7.7 gigatons of mismanaged plastics by 2040

If we continue with business as usual, we’ll have 77 million metric tons of plastics — the equivalent of 16 times the weight of the entire human population — being landfilled, incinerated or leaked into the environment. 

While we certainly don’t need any more stats to illuminate the scale of the plastics crisis, this terrifying figure is part of a soon-to-be-released report by Google, covering not just the challenge of the plastics circularity gap but also key intervention points. 

This is the future that befalls us if we do not maintain our ambition — if we do not invest in infrastructure, push for legislative change, expand our pool of solutions, pursue aggressive commitments and drive every member of the value chain to do their part — either by signing on to the pact or creating independent commitments and strategies with tools like the newly released PlasticsIQ.

"Plastic pollution is an existential threat," shared Mike Werner, lead for the circular economy at Google. Wingstrad noted, "Now is the time to get into the conversation." I couldn’t agree more.

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