When it comes to the federal government’s role in safeguarding the planet and its most valuable natural resources, the United States is about to perilously stumble headfirst into the great unknown. Domestic doom and gloom aside, this certainly doesn’t mean that some of the world’s largest and most powerful companies aren’t continuing to strive toward a better — and cleaner — future.

Earlier this week at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the chichi Swiss ski resort of Davos, a 30-page report on plastic packaging waste with some rather sobering key findings was released to the public. Titled “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics,” the report finds that most (95 percent) potentially reusable and recyclable plastic packaging material, worth $80 billion to $120 billion annually, is only used once before being discarded and lost to the economy.

A staggering amount of this cast-off plastic packaging, about 8 million metric tons per year, eventually winds up in the world’s oceans. Per the report, that’s roughly a garbage truckload full per minute. And if we continue on this current track, by the year 2050, the oceans will be home to more plastic waste, by weight, than fish. Can you image ... more discarded plastic junk in the ocean than there there is fish?

The good news?

As revealed at Davos, 40 "industry leaders" — industry leaders responsible for producing plastic shampoo bottles, mayonnaise jars, and 2-liter jugs of diet soda that could potentially outweigh the world's marine life within a matter of only a few decades — have come together to reverse this troubling trend and embrace a global circular economy in which “plastics never become waste.”

Published in collaboration between the WEF and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a British charity founded in 2009 by the record-breaking yachtswoman-turned-circular economy-promoting philanthropist, with support from the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, the report describes itself as the first comprehensive vision for a plastic waste-free future.

New Plastics Economy infographic, WEF and Ellen MacArthur Foundation Graphic: World Economic Form

Bringing together the world’s top purveyors of plastic packaging materials (those aforementioned soda bottles and mayonnaise jars) to endorse the report and subsequently work toward the common goal of keeping plastic packaging out of oceans and re-circulating well after its initial use will prove to be nothing but beneficial.

As noted in the report, 20 percent of plastic packaging could be “profitably reused” while another 50 percent could be recycled. It’s up to global business leaders to figure out, via innovative (re)design solutions, how to tackle that remaining 30 percent of waste, equivalent to 10 billion garbage bags, that will inevitably wind up in landfills and incinerators.

Currently, only 14 percent of plastic packaging waste is reused or recycled.

Reads the report’s executive summary:

The overarching vision of the New Plastics Economy is that plastics never become waste; rather, they re-enter the economy as valuable technical or biological nutrients. The New Plastics Economy is underpinned by and aligns with principles of the circular economy. Its ambition is to deliver better system-wide economic and environmental outcomes by creating an effective after-use plastics economy, drastically reducing the leakage of plastics into natural systems (in particular the ocean) and other negative externalities; and decoupling from fossil feedstocks.

Unilever, P&G step up their game

As for what individual companies are doing at this moment — and plan to do moving forward in response to the report — is a little less clear although one report participant Unilever, has already publicly announced its intention to make all plastic packaging used it its multitude of brands “fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.”

Says Paul Polman, CEO of the British-Dutch consumer goods behemoth, the world’s third largest, which owns a wide range of iconic food and personal care brands including Dove, Lipton, Noxzema, Marmite, Ben & Jerry’s, and Hellmann’s:

Our plastic packaging plays a critical role in making our products appealing, safe and enjoyable for our consumers. Yet it is clear that if we want to continue to reap the benefits of this versatile material, we need to do much more as an industry to help ensure it is managed responsibly and efficiently post consumer-use.
To address the challenge of ocean plastic waste we need to work on systemic solutions - ones which stop plastics entering our waterways in the first place. We hope these commitments will encourage others in the industry to make collective progress towards ensuring that all of our plastic packaging is fully recyclable and recycled.

Dame Ellen MacArthur praises Unilever’s direction in a press statement released by the company:

By committing to ambitious circular economy goals for plastic packaging, Unilever is contributing to tangible system change and sends a strong signal to the entire fast-moving consumer goods industry. Combining upstream measures on design and materials with post-use strategies demonstrates the system-wide approach that is required to turn the New Plastics Economy into reality.

Although not listed as a “participating organization” in the report, Procter & Gamble has endorsed the New Plastics Economy initiative and announced, in conjunction with the report's release, that it plans to develop world’s first recyclable shampoo bottle partially made from “beach plastic” — that is, plastic waste plucked from shorelines.

Ellen MacArthur Retired marathon solo sailor Dame Ellen MacArthur is leading the charge for a circular economy in which plastic packaging is endlessly reused and recycled. (Photo: Bryan Ledgard/flickr)

The shampoo bottles themselves — Head & Shoulders brand, by the way — will be composed of 25 percent plastic sourced by volunteers at beaches in Northern France. The pilot initiative, launched by P&G in collaboration with two companies that are listed as participating organizations in the report, the always fantastic upcyclers at TerraCycle and French water and waste management company Suez, will kick off later this summer in France.

Says Jean-Louis Chaussade, CEO of Suez:

Suez was pleased to contribute to the New Plastics Economy report, a collaborative case for rethinking the current plastics economy. As this report shows, a radical and joint rethink of both design and after-use processes will be required, in addition to other measures such as stimulating demand for secondary raw materials. We look forward to continued collaboration to enable better economic and environmental results in the plastic packaging value chain and to accelerate the transition towards the circular economy.”

Outside of beach plastic Head & Shoulders bottles, P&G has also announced that by 2018 roughly 90 percent of all hair care bottles the company sells in Europe — 500 million bottles annually — will be composed of at least 25 percent recycled plastic.

In addition to global business heavyweights including Nestle, SABMiller, Coca-Cola, Kimberly-Clark and IKEA, the NYC Department of Sanitation, Zero Waste Scotland, the London Waste & Recycling Board and the city of Atlanta were actively involved in the creation of the report alongside Dow Chemical, DuPont and Australian packaging giant Amcor among others. And not at all surprisingly, sustainable designer and Cradle to Cradle guru William McDonough served on the report's advisory panel.

You can view The New Plastics Economy in full here. And be sure to keep an ear open from other major corporations aside from Unilever and Procter & Gamble on how they plan to work together and individually to combat the scourge of ocean-clogging plastic packaging waste.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.