Perspective on ‘Breaking the Plastic Wave’ study

The circular
economy solution to
plastic pollution

by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation
“We need to raise our level of ambition and match it with bold and urgent action.”

- Dame Ellen MacArthur

On the 23rd of July 2020, The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ released Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution - one of the most analytically robust studies ever produced on ocean plastics. Thought partners were the University of Oxford, University of Leeds, Common Seas, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

This is our perspective on the study’s findings and what businesses and governments must do now to address them.

Failure to act now will see ocean plastic stocks quadruple by 2040

Breaking the Plastic Wave shows that, if we fail to act, by 2040:

  •  the volume of plastic on the market will double
  • the annual volume of plastic entering the ocean will almost triple, from 11m tonnes in 2016 to 29m tonnes in 2040
  • ocean plastic stocks will quadruple, reaching over 600m tonnes 

This is in line with our 2016 analysis, which showed there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

2016 to 2040, 2x more plastic use, 3x more plastic going into the ocean, 4x more plastic stock in the ocean

Based on data from Breaking the Plastic Wave study by The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ (2020)
* The scope of the study is all plastics disposed of as municipal solid waste (packaging, toys, diapers, day-to-day objects like toothbrushes, etc.). It excludes other plastics, such as those used in construction, automotive, electronics, and textiles. The scope covers around two thirds of total plastics production, and the vast majority of total ocean leakage.

The solutions lie in a circular economy

The problem starts long before plastic reaches our oceans and so must the solutions.

Until now, many efforts to tackle plastic pollution have focused narrowly on improving waste management or clean-ups. Others have focused only on bans and plastic reduction. None of these will work in isolation. We cannot recycle our way out of plastic pollution, and neither can we simply reduce our way out of it.

Breaking the Plastic Wave shows that we must take a comprehensive circular economy approach. We must prioritise rethinking what is put on the market, whilst also rapidly increasing our ability to keep it in the loop after it has been used.

We won't recycle or dispose our way out of plastic pollution

Scenarios focused on collection, recycling and disposal alone fall short

Limited by speed of infrastructure development

Scaling collection, recycling and disposal is limited by the realistic speed of infrastructure development, esp. in the Global South. Connecting everyone to formal collection systems would require connecting over 500,000 people every single day between today and 2040.

High annual leakage of plastics in the ocean

These scenarios fail to reduce the annual amount of plastics entering our oceans in 2040 below 2016 levels, even with the most aggressive, but realistic pace of infrastructure development.

Significantly more costly/expensive

By 2040 these scenarios are USD 100 to 200 bln per annum more expensive compared to
a comprehensive circular economy approach, while resulting in worse environmental and social outcomes.

High greenhouse gas emissions

These scenarios lead to around 13% higher GHG emissions compared to a comprehensive circular economy approach and lock us in into a system relying on long-term stable flows of fossil fuel feedstocks.

System change towards a circular economy offers the best economic, environmental, and climate outcomes

The circular economy considers every stage of a product’s journey – before and after it reaches the customer. This approach is not only vital to stop plastic pollution, but as the study shows, it offers the strongest economic, social, and climate benefits. 

Compared with business-as-usual, a circular economy has the potential to  reduce the annual volume of plastics entering our oceans by 80%, generate savings of USD 200 bn per year, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25%, and create 700,000 net additional jobs by 2040.

2040 outcomes by scenario

Net Cost
(USD billion per year) (1)
Ocean Leakage
(Million tonnes per year)  (2)
Virgin Plastic Usage (%) (3)
Greenhouse Gas Emissions (%) (4)
Business as usual (BAU)
No systems interventions or change in culture/consumer behavior
940
100
100
13
94
85
820
18
84
85
780
75
45
5
740
14
52
80
29
920
Collect and Dispose
Maximise increase of collection and safe disposal facilities
Recycling
Maximise increase of collection and recycling capacity
Reduce and Substitute
Maximise reduction in consumption and substitute for alternatives where possible
System Change
(Circular economy approach)

Maximise reduction, substitute where possible, and maximise collection and recycling
1 Total net cost for the entire system (from raw material to production to after-use
management) in the year 2040 to deliver the same total ‘utility’ in all scenarios
2 Tonnage of plastics entering the ocean per year in 2040
3 Tonnage of virgin plastics per year in 2040 relative to BAU
4 Tonnage of CO2e per year in 2040 relative to BAU

Based on data from Breaking the Plastic Wave study by The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ (2020)

We must eliminate, circulate, and innovate

Based on data from Breaking the Plastic Wave study by The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ (2020)

eliminate
We must eliminate the plastic we don't need
circulate
We must circulate the plastic we do need
innovate
We must innovate at unprecedented speed and scale

We call on businesses and governments to:

Global Commitment logo
The Plastics Pact logo

A pathway to build back better

As we look for ways to recover from the economic shock of coronavirus, the circular economy presents opportunities to build a more resilient and regenerative economy that is better than the one we had; addressing global challenges, such as plastic pollution and climate change, while helping us restore the environment, create jobs, and benefit society. 

The comprehensive circular economy approach set out here, which considers every stage of a product’s journey – before and after it reaches the customer – is not only vital to stopping plastic pollution, but as the study shows, it offers the strongest economic, social, and climate benefits. Compared with business-as-usual, the circular economy has the potential to generate savings of USD 200 billion per year, reduce greenhouse gases by 25%, and create 700,000 net additional jobs by 2040, making it a clear opportunity to build back better.

Governments and businesses have shown sustained commitment to building a circular economy for plastic in recent years. This momentum can now be harnessed to transform the plastic system. 


For more information on the circular economy for plastic, head to ellenmacarthurfoundation.org