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Tackle the root cause of plastic waste

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Sara Wingstrand

Programme Manager, Plastics Innovation, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

If we want to solve the plastic waste crisis, we need to tackle the root cause of the problem, rather than simply addressing the symptoms.

My local coffee shop has started serving coffee to-go in reusable coffee cups only — it is simply not possible to get coffee in a single-use cup. For every coffee sold, one disposable cup is eliminated. It is solving the problem of packaging waste before it becomes a problem.

Plastic waste is a result of the way we design our products, packaging, and business models. Therefore, with a shift in mindset, we can design out waste and stop it from being created in the first place.

Moving innovation efforts upstream to the design stage is essential to create a circular economy where plastic never becomes waste and materials are kept in use. Yes, it is important to get downstream collection and recycling right, but we are not going to recycle our way out of this problem and we cannot pull plastic out of the ocean at the rate we are putting it in.

We are not going to recycle our way out of this problem and we cannot pull plastic out of the ocean at the rate we are putting it in.

Designing for the circular economy

By adopting an upstream innovation mindset, companies can move beyond incremental tweaks to their packaging portfolio and bring about fundamental changes that allow them to deliver their products without creating waste. This means rethinking not just the packaging itself, but the products and business models as well.

For example, there may be innovative solutions to product design that change its packaging needs, such as moving from a liquid product to a solid concentrate, or from physical to digital. Similarly, rethinking business models can change the packaging requirements. This could include selling products in refillable or returnable packaging, or localising production, so freshness can be assured without relying on the complex, often less recyclable packaging that is frequently required in global supply chains.

Upstream innovation is crucial to solve the plastic pollution crisis and bring about a circular economy. If the root cause of the problem is found in the design stage, so too should the solution.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently published Upstream Innovation: A Guide To Packaging Solutions, containing practical guidance and real-world examples, all freely available online.

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