How the Ellen MacArthur plastics circular economy has shaped UK government policy

Zara Babakordi, 26th November 2020

The plastics circular economy model is conceptualised as the alternative to the historic linear plastics value chain of ‘take, make, use, throw.’  At the heart of the plastics circular model is an objective for high value plastics to be kept in use for as long as possible, ensuring maximum extraction while keeping resources out of landfill and incineration for as long as possible. A key objective, therefore, is to decouple the generation of plastic waste from growth. The plastics circular economy model has been championed and led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation; its core vision is to ensure that plastics never become waste but are able to re-enter the economy. Framed within the context of the UN SDGs and criticising the fragmented and uncoordinated approach to the plastics economy to date, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation aims to deliver improved economic and environmental outcomes, at a system-wide level, through the creation of an effective plastics economy post-consumption. In doing so, it is argued, the leakage of plastics into the natural environment will be reduced and its production will be decoupled from fossil feedstocks. 

A number of signatories and institutions have committed their intentions to engage in a plastics circular economy model.  To date, 450 signatories have signed its Global Commitment, including companies that collectively represent 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally (e.g., PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, L’Oréal). 


– Take action to eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging by 2025

– Take action to move from single use towards reuse models where relevant by 2025

– 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025

– Set an ambitious 2025 post-consumer recycled content target across all plastic packaging use

Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2019). New plastics economy global commitment. June 2019 report.
Idiograph provided by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Both the UK Government and the Scottish Government have signed the agreement. The promotion of a circular economy approach to resources is now a key part of government strategy, including UK Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and its Resources and Waste Strategy for England. Similarly, Scotland has developed its own strategy—Making Things Last.  The importance of this cannot be overstated given the impact of government legislation in shaping the plastic landscape for businesses, local government and, ultimately, the household. 

It is also recognised that government strategies to the circular economy are themselves influenced by non-voluntary measures. In 2018, for example, the European Commission adopted the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy.  This was developed following the European Commission’s 2015 EU Action Plan for a circular economy, which identified plastics as a key priority. Although not specifically targeted towards ‘single use’ plastics, the 2018 strategy presents key EU-level commitments including ensuring that by 2030 all plastic packaging is either reusable or recyclable. Supporting this goal further, in 2018, the European Commission proposed the Single-Use Plastics Directive which would target the ten single-use plastic items most commonly found on Europe’s beaches and seas through a range of interventions including bans, improved collection of single use plastic waste and improved labelling schemes. Therefore, some of the goals put forward by the UK- and Scottish Governments will be supportive of EU-level directives. 

It is argued, however, that such a plastics circular economy model does not entirely resolve the complexities of plastic production and consumption; for example, the Global Environment Facility suggests the need to account for temporal dynamics, not just having a circular solution in place, but finding strategies to slow this loop and reduce demand (in the first instance), only producing plastic products where essential, discouraging non-essential production and use and promoting use of renewable and recyclable alternatives where possible.

For more information, please see our 2020 research report: Institutions, Interventions and Single Use Plastics

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