Nature cannot naturally break down plastic waste. Each plastic item, unless burned or reused, will persist for centuries beyond our lifetime. While 60% of plastics have lifespans of less than five years, only 9% are recycled. There is a pressing need for a comprehensive strategy to establish a circular system for plastics, which must operate effectively, preserving economic value while eliminating plastic waste and pollution.

Broadpeak works with industry experts, impact-driven investors, and academia on pressing global issues. With our articles and trilogies, we want to share our key insights we gain in the process with our network. All our articles and earlier trilogies can be found here.

The Plastic Crisis  

Currently, our approach to plastic production and consumption follows a linear and unsustainable trajectory. We extract oil and gas from the earth to manufacture plastic items many of which are intended for single-use purposes before being discarded. Arthur ten Wolde, Executive Director of, stated “Plastics and packaging are present in all sectors, exerting a significant influence. Next to their symbolic value, they represent a substantial source of pollution. By fostering a profitable market for reuse and recycling and incentivizing sustainable design practices, the impact can be made much smaller.” The production of plastic has surged from 2 million tons in 1950 to 348 million tons in 2017, transforming into a global industry with a value of USD 22.6 billion, with projections expecting it to double in capacity by 2040.

The escalating levels of plastic production and pollution have alarming effects on the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss, and pollution, adversely affecting various dimensions of sustainable development including environmental social, economic, and health aspects. Khalil Radi, Co-Founder & Global Managing Director of Buy Food with Plastic, mentioned “Life on land and below water gets harmed, and therefore also puts humans at risk. Circular practices must be implemented in all possible use cases to prevent plastic from contaminating the natural environment.” Plastic pollution can disrupt habitats and natural processes, diminishing ecosystems’ capacity to adjust to climate change, which in turn has direct repercussions on the livelihoods, food production, and social well-being of millions of people. Annually, around 11 million tons of plastic waste find their way into oceans. Without significant interventions and under a business-as-usual scenario, this figure is projected to triple by 2040.

Annually, 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, estimated at USD 80-120 billion, is lost to the economy. Transitioning to a circular economy holds the potential to mitigate these losses. By 2040, such a shift could curtail the volume of plastic entering our oceans by over 80%, reducing the reliance on virgin plastic by 55%. This could also save governments USD 70 billion, decrease GHG emissions by 25%, and generate approximately 700’000 additional jobs, primarily in the global south. For this transition to happen, it is imperative to adopt a holistic approach, considering the entire lifecycle of a material from its sourcing and production to its utilization and post-use management.

Challenges and Barriers

Plastic is one of the cheapest materials we have at hand and the reality is that plastics will continue to be indispensable for numerous applications and sectors that are fundamental to our evolving world. Nicolas Fries, a Circular Economy and Innovation Manager at Implenia, pointed out “External factors that have an impact on the environment or society are often not included in prices, resulting in primary resources being cheaper than secondary resources. Nevertheless, plastics must be replaced by more sustainable alternatives in global logistics, taking into account standards for safety, transport, and durability.” Materials must comply with many standards and criteria, which makes it challenging to find suitable alternatives. Moreover, solutions such as limiting plastic consumption and recycling processes can lead to unintended negative consequences, such as increased emissions, the use of chemicals, or water waste.

Furthermore, the current plastics economy is greatly fragmented, compounded by concerns regarding waste collection and leakages. The rising market presence of biodegradable plastics presents both opportunities and risks. The absence of clear standards, labelling, or marking for consumers, coupled with insufficient coordination across the value chain for waste collection and treatment, heightens the risk of plastic leakage and complicates mechanical recycling processes. Lukas Fuchs, a former Senior Analyst for Circular Economy at the Ellen McArthur Foundation, said “Adapting business models is challenging and requires time. It involves – amongst many other things – developing capabilities, restructuring incentive systems, establishing efficient reverse logistics processes, which can be challenging to build, especially considering that many companies lack their own logistics networks.” Moreover, the collection systems for plastic waste are fragmented and lack coordination across regions, even in advanced economies such as the US and Western Europe. This fragmentation impedes the scaling up of a circular economy for plastics, as it creates substantial gaps in both the supply and end-use of recycled materials. The situation is further exacerbated by the rapid emergence and adoption of new packaging materials and formats.

Embracing the Value of Plastic

According to Chris Whyte, Director of the ACEN Foundation, “We must critically examine the issues surrounding plastics and packaging, understanding both their requirements and opportunities. Recognizing the vital role that plastics play, we must ensure the provision of the necessary infrastructure for their processing. Despite facing challenges, it’s crucial to embrace opportunities and acknowledge the enduring presence of plastics in our society.” The revalorization of products at the end of their lifecycle is crucial. Once we grasp the opportunities and attain a comprehensive understanding of the value chain, the emergence and adoption of new technologies can take place. Innovations such as bioplastics, paper-based products, and biodegradable products have been instrumental in driving progress in this regard.

Further research and innovation are essential to fully understand the potential of plastics. Adequate funds and investments must be directed towards this industry to accelerate the process, thereby enabling the development of targeted policies. Sebastian Kahlert, Sustainability Manager at ETH Zurich, specified “Extended producer responsibility has proven effective across many industries by incorporating takeback costs into product pricing. Tax incentives and regulations promoting sustainable practices and transparency facilitate the affordability of circular and sustainable business models for consumers, while also incentivizing producers to prioritize sustainability.”

The adoption of a historic resolution by the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) in March 2022, to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including the marine environment, by 2024 marked a crucial step forward. This resolution comprehensively addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, emphasizing its production, design, and disposal. The upcoming treaty, grounded in legally binding global regulations and holistic circular economy measures, presents a unique opportunity to catalyze systemic changes and combat plastic pollution. As plastic value chains increasingly transcend national borders, it’s imperative to recognize the importance of international developments, such as China’s recent decision to restrict imports of certain types of plastic waste. Christopher el Khoury, Circular Economy Expert at Intesa Sanpaolo, told us “A crucial strategy involves redesigning products and business models but also assessing the entire value chain to determine how a circular approach can be integrated. This necessitates the development of adequate technologies, innovative materials, and a supportive regulatory framework that comprehensively promotes and creates a good playing field to accelerate the adoption of circular practices.” In addition to governmental efforts, collaborative initiatives like the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment launched by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the UN Environment Program in 2018 play a crucial role. This initiative unites businesses, governments, and organizations worldwide behind the common vision of a circular economy for plastic, aiming to prevent plastic from becoming waste or pollution. The participation of signatory governments and businesses accounting for 20% of global packaging production, underscores a collective to transform plastic production, use, and reuse. It is also essential to incorporate recyclability guidelines and frameworks and ensure the implementation and fulfillment of recycling quotas.

While reducing and recycling plastics represent important initial measures, they alone are insufficient to address the plastic waste crisis. Instead, a paradigm shift is required in how we design, use, and reuse plastics. Closing the circularity gap requires a cohesive global alignment of government policies, stakeholder values, financial support, and the implementation of transformative technologies. Urgent and substantial investments in infrastructure and technology are imperative on a large scale to effectively manage the escalating volumes of plastic waste.

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