FT Rethink

    Rethinking our toxic relationship with plastic

    Our 70-year love affair with plastic has changed the world. This cheap, light, versatile material has put life-enhancing products in the hands of billions of people by enabling them to be produced more cheaply and at greater scale. Plastic has also made many products more durable and effective. It’s even made it possible for inventors to create things that simply couldn’t exist without plastic.

    But plastic has also contaminated virtually every corner of our planet. We pump greenhouse gasses (GHGs) into the atmosphere when we make it and – all too often – when we burn it. And, instead of being recycled, waste plastic is usually either sent to landfill or lost to the environment, where it can cause untold damage as it breaks down – a process that can take up to a thousand years.


    Now, our toxic relationship with plastic has reached a tipping point

    Now, our toxic relationship with plastic has reached a tipping point. Awareness of plastic pollution is ubiquitous, and influential actors are making interdependent pledges to repair our relationship with plastic by delivering the solutions we need to clean up the environment while continuing to benefit from a material that has helped make the modern world possible.

    In 2022, all 193 countries of the United Nations (UN) agreed to create the first international, legally binding compact to end plastic pollution. Negotiations are ongoing, with a view to passing the agreement into law sometime in 2024.1 Meanwhile, companies from the consumer goods, retail, and fashion industries, accounting for 20% of the global plastic packaging supply, have pledged to reduce their plastic waste.2

    Even so, we must not underestimate the scale and complexity of the plastic challenge.

    Read also: Cracking the plastic crisis?


    Surveying the damage

    Globally, we now make over 430 million tonnes of plastic each year,1 a mass roughly equivalent to that of the global human population and which is on course to triple by 20603. In 2020, the amount of plastic in existence was estimated to weigh more than all land and marine animals combined.4 Worse, we use around two-thirds of it to make single-use products.1

    Our oceans are now awash with plastic, to the extent that oceanic plastic could outweigh fish by 2050

    The result is a relentless tsunami of plastic that our waste management infrastructure has long struggled to keep out of the environment. Of all the plastic we’ve ever made, little more than 1% has entered a circular loop. As for the rest, most has ended up in landfills. But we also incinerate around a quarter of our plastic waste every year. And since 93% of plastics are made from fossil fuels, burning them pumps more GHGs into the atmosphere – on top of those emitted during production. All told, we unleash the equivalent of around 1.8 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere annually – around 3.4% of global emissions – to maintain our love affair with plastic.5

    Read also: The Blue Economy - five ways to save our oceans

    The remainder of the plastic tsunami has spread far and wide. Our oceans are now awash with plastic, to the extent that oceanic plastic could outweigh fish by 2050.6 Eventually, the rhythms of our planet break down plastic products into micro-plastics in the ocean as well as on land, where they damage soils and make their way into our water supplies. And, in both environments, we now find micro-plastics in animals from the bottom of the food chain to the very top – including us. This is a significant problem, as plastic that is eaten accidentally may cause digestive blockages or contain harmful bacteria and toxins accumulated in the environment.

    To clean up plastic pollution, we must reduce the size of the plastic tsunami while increasing our capacity to responsibly process what we do produce, so that much more of it enters a circular loop

    The plastics revolution we need 

    To clean up plastic pollution, we must reduce the size of the plastic tsunami while increasing our capacity to responsibly process what we do produce, so that much more of it enters a circular loop. This would reduce the plastic entering the environment to a trickle, giving us a chance to clean up plastic pollution.

    Although it remains to be seen exactly how the UN will agree to tackle this mammoth project, we have a good understanding of what must happen to begin fixing our relationship with plastic: a circular plastics revolution at every stage of the lifecycle, from better materials design and delivery models to improved waste collection, sorting, and recycling.

    It all starts with better plastic. One option is to scale up the use of alternative, bio-based polymers that would reduce fossil fuel use while increasing recyclability, compostability, or both. According to a UNEP (UN Environment Programme) report, replacing many plastic products – such as takeaway food containers – with compostable polymers or paper could deliver a 17% reduction in plastic pollution by 2040.

    When it comes to delivery, models that encourage the re-use of plastic products would increase the lifespan of these products and, in turn, reduce the amount of new plastic we need to make. For example, in 2022, Coca-Cola announced its 2030 goal to have at least 25% of the drinks it makes globally sold either in refillable or returnable glass or plastic bottles, or via drink dispensers with reusable packaging.7 The same report estimated that such delivery models could reduce plastic pollution by another 30% by 2040.

    Read also: 10 ways to rethink plastic through technology

    To recycle plastic, you have to clean and sort it according to quality and type of product. Dirty, unsorted plastics are usually sent to landfill or, at best, are turned into low-quality, unrecyclable plastic which must itself be sent to landfill once it’s discarded. But sorting vast quantities of plastic quickly is complicated and expensive. And many places – particularly low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) – lack the technology and processes they need. Until we develop methods of sorting plastic waste at scale that are fast, accurate, and affordable for every community, most plastic waste – much of which could be recycled – will be sent to landfill or leak into the environment. And, of course, we’ll make even more plastic to replace it.

    Fortunately, pioneering companies are already working on solutions. For instance, Dutch company MantiSpectra is testing a micro-sensor that could enable the rapid sorting of plastic at scale, a capability that would revolutionise recycling. We also need legislation and policies that incentivise recycling and the development of new recycling technologies while making the production of new plastic less attractive.

    Even if we improve collection and sorting, most recycling technologies capable of operating at scale today can recycle plastic only so many times before it must be sent to landfill. Today, we recycle most plastic mechanically by grinding it to flakes, melting it, and re-moulding it into new products. With each cycle, plastic becomes less durable until it can no longer be recycled into anything useful. These limitations mean that most plastic waste can’t be mechanically recycled.8

    All told, interventions designed to circularise more plastic or improve disposal processes for unrecyclable plastic could reduce environmental plastic pollution… [by] around 80%

    We need to do better. And, once again, businesses are already taking on the challenge. In a particularly notable development, following a decade-long search, French company Carbios identified cutinase, an enzyme that can break down PET (polyethylene terephthalate) into its constituent molecules in only a few hours. The resulting monomers can then be re-made into virgin plastic. Whereas PET plastic can only be mechanically recycled a few times, enzymatic recycling can deliver as many as 50 cycles using the same molecules.9 According to the UNEP report, making more plastic recyclable could reduce plastic pollution by another 20% by 2040.1

    All told, interventions designed to circularise more plastic or improve disposal processes for unrecyclable plastic could reduce environmental plastic pollution from around 227 million tonnes in 2040 (on current trends) to just 40 million tonnes, a reduction of around 80%. Even so, we’ll still have a lot of plastic pollution to deal with. According to the UNEP, making manufacturers responsible for the safe disposal of non-recyclable plastic would go a long way towards ensuring that it never enters the environment.1


    Towards a healthier relationship with plastic

    The UNEP argues that a circular plastic revolution would deliver significant financial savings in both the public and private sectors, along with thousands of new jobs. But it also concluded that delivering the changes we need will require a total investment of around USD 1.2 trillion over the next 18 years.1

    Investors, then, have a vital role to play in powering the innovation it’ll take to revolutionise the industry and end plastic pollution. And although it’s still early days for the circular plastic economy, recent developments in technology, consumer demand, and sustainability policy in both the public and private sectors are creating a growing range of attractive investment opportunities.

    Read also: The 10 principles of a circular economy

    Private investment will be particularly important in LMICs, where plastics are often collected by innovative yet small companies that are struggling to scale. Whereas such companies lie outside of many institutional investors’ risk–return profiles, private capital can help bring these companies together, delivering efficiency and profitability through collaboration and economies of scale. Eventually, these companies will become more attractive to more investors, creating further opportunities to develop our circular plastics infrastructure.

    According to the UNEP report, an 80% reduction in 2040’s plastic pollution would prevent around USD 3 trillion worth of damage to our health and the environment, along with costs associated with legal suits against companies responsible for plastic pollution.1 So, although the task ahead of us is great, the benefits of success to our society and planet would be profound. And we can succeed – if we start today.


    1 UNEP (2023) ‘Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy’.
    2 UNEP (2022) ‘The Global Commitment 2022’.
    OECD (2022) ‘Global Plastics Outlook: Economic Drivers, Environmental Impacts and Policy Options’.
    4 Elhacham et al. (2020) ‘Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass’.
    5 OECD (n.d.) ‘Plastic leakage and greenhouse gas emissions are increasing’.
    6 Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2016) The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics’.
    7 The Coca-Cola Company (2022) ‘The Coca‑Cola Company Announces Industry-Leading Target for Reusable Packaging’.
    Greenpeace (2022) ‘Circular Claims Fall Flat Again’. 
    9 Lombard Odier (2023) ‘The CLIC® Chronicles: Meet Carbios – the French firm revolutionising recycling with plastic-munching proteins’.

    Important information

    This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

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