A Life Cycle Approach to Plastic Pollution

Addressing plastic pollution and marine litter requires a new way of thinking that looks at the entire life cycle of plastics. A life cycle approach to plastic ensures the identification of key hotspots in the production and consumption system by considering all potential impacts (on climate, ecosystems, toxicity, jobs, economy, etc) caused by plastic products / goods / services (and their alternatives), in each stage of their life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials, processing of secondary materials, to product manufacture, distribution, maintenance and use, and end of life management.

In this way, a life cycle approach also helps addressing potential trade-offs between environmental impacts and sustainability pillars, and can orient the selection of the best solutions for the environment with best socio-economic implications.

Key Elements of a Life Cycle Approach to Addressing Plastics Pollution

Click the different circles for more information

Life Cycle approach to addressing plastics pollution
Build from Existing InitiativesScientific Basis, Quantitative AnalysisAction PlansScience-based TargetsGuide Financing with Science

Build from Existing Initiatives

Addressing plastic pollution requires a concerted effort by the global community. Multiple global initiatives are already in place and have been gaining momentum in the last years .

One of the main initiatives today is the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation together with UNEP. The vision of the Global Commitment subscribes to life cycle thinking and circular economy of plastics. Over 500 businesses and governments have signed the Global Commitment and committed to undertake specific actions under three broad areas: eliminate problematic and unnecessary plastic packaging, innovate plastic products, and circulate plastic products so they stay in the economy and out of the environment.

To know more about the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, check out: Plastics and a circular economy | Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Scientific Basis, Quantitative Analysis

A Life Cycle Approach provides a science-based and quantitative understanding on the environmental impacts of plastic throughout its life cycle. The practice of using Life Cycle Thinking ensures that one specific environmental impact is not merely shifted to other issues. Instead, it provides an overall outlook on the environmental impacts of a product throughout its life cycle. E.g. our studies have shown that single-use plastic packaging products have usually worse environmental impact when compared to reusable models.

UNEP has been publishing LCA meta-analyses on the best alternatives to different kinds of single-use plastic products, such as shopping bags, bottles, takeaway food packaging, cups, tableware, nappies, and menstrual products.

To read our different reports, click here: Single-Use Plastic Products Studies – Life Cycle Initiative

Action Plans

The development and implementation of Action Plans to tackle plastic pollution and marine litter, as produced by Regional and National governments, is one of the most effective ways of addressing the issue. The content of the Action Plans are ideally informed by national source inventories, which may in turn by national Hotspot Analysis, such as described here.

UNEP has been working with several countries in the development of Action Plans. Additionally, UNEP has been encouraging action from governments in the context of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, co-led with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Useful examples of government action (as well as the progress from specific governments against those actions) can be consulted from this page: https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/global-commitment/signatory-reports (select the category “Governments” and then pick the government you want to learn from).

Science-based Targets

The targets to reduce plastic pollution should be developed based on scientific criteria. The Hotspotting Guidance provides a scientific approach in identifying the key areas that a government needs to improve on. These hotspots can range from the critical type of polymer to be addressed, stage in the life cycle which has the most negative impact, and the specific locality in the country where leakage most occur. Upon identification of key areas to improve on, targets can then be developed. These targets serve as an indicator whether a project or policy was effective in its purpose. The image above displays some examples of indicators.

Together with the IUCN, UNEP has been working with countries in the assessment of their national plastic pollution hotspots. To read more on the Hotspotting Guidance, click here: National Guidance for Plastic Pollution Hotspotting and Shaping Action (lifecycleinitiative.org)

Guide Financing with Science

Addressing plastic pollution and marine litter requires a redesign of the plastics economy. The present situation is caused by how single-use plastic products are considered as a necessary commodity that is easy to produce and requires little effort for consumers to discard. It is the convenience of plastics that make it challenging to modify how things are done. However, legislations can encourage plastic producers and retailers to be more accountable in managing the plastics they bring out in the economy. This will require certain investment or financing on their part to come up with innovative sustainable solutions to decrease the environmental impact of plastics.

One such policy that is being implemented in different countries is the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme. Businesses involved in the life cycle of plastic are required to pay a fee. The accumulated collected amount will be invested into different solutions to address plastic pollution.

For more information on how an EPR scheme can be implemented, check out: Extended Producer Responsibility - Plastics SA (plasticsinfo.co.za)

Additional Information

Click the tabs below to view interactive illustrations, useful links and the final webinar programme.

Click the darker red circles for more information.

Hotspots, solutions, actors
Eco design Circular designFinance for circular solutionsIncrease recycling ratesExtended Producer Responsibility + modulated feesSustainable Public ProcurementEco-innovationEco-labels and standardsAwareness Raising

Eco design Circular design

Avoid toxic additives; design for reuse; mono-material design

Sustainable Public Procurement

Governments are recommended to set up Sustainable Public Procurement policies to support reusable options and products containing recycled content.

Eco-labels and standards


Awareness Raising

Increase consumer awareness through targeted and effective consumer campaigns, e.g., https://www.cleanseas.org/


During the first pre-meeting of the informal “Ministerial Conference on Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution”, a request was made by Member States to UNEP and the Life Cycle Initiative (hosted by UNEP) to provide technical insights to the delegates on what does it mean to use a life cycle approach in the context of plastic pollution. In this sense, a webinar on “What does a life-cycle approach applied to address marine litter and plastic pollution look like?” was held on 12 July, 2021.


Webinar full recording

Webinar slide deck

Additional webinar elements

Questions  Answers 
Are more long-term targets also included in the The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment? The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is already thinking about what is beyond 2025, but no targets have been set yet. The 2025 time-line was set in 2015 to pick the lowest hanging fruits: showing that reuse is manageable and possible and a big part of the solution. 
How are health effects (e.g., from toxins) and additives (chemicals, nano and micro) addressed in LCA of plastics?  Life Cycle Assessment addresses almost all types of environmental (LCA) issues, including issues related to toxicity. This is probably one of the most challenging impact categories: there are many challenges in assessing the toxicity of substances related to plastics. On the one hand, very little is known of the additives that are in plastic. With plastics that are at the end-of-life that come from all sorts of uses, the challenge is even bigger. At the other hand, modelling the potential impacts of those additives depends on so many other things, such as the type of waste treatment, the type of technology, and whether the substances will become to pose a risk to human health. 
So yes, this is taken into account in LCA but it is not simple at all and there certainly is a need for much more information. One key aspect would be: if those additives that are most problematic are avoided to begin with, that will facilitate LCA and reduce the impacts. 
On a scientific basis: what role do the SDG 12 indicators play in the The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, or what is needed to make them useful, e.g., disaggregation, etc. There is no direct interrelation between SDGs and the Global Commitment. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation recognizes the circular economy as one of the solutions to address climate change and biodiversity loss, responsible consumption and other SDGs are part of this over-arching ambition that the Global Commitment has. 
What is the importance of education and sensitization in building a circular economy for plastics? Education is pivotal, not only for the consumer but also for organizations such as the South African Plastics Pact, to be able to disseminate this knowledge in a way that it can be digested by anyone. In the South Africa Plastics Pact, a lot of time is spent on communication and communication campaigns have been developed. Many of the members of the South Africa Plastics Pact communicate with the consumer with on-pack recycling labels. The South Africa Plastics Pact is trying to make these labels more streamlined and easier to understand. As we move forward and implement alternative business models, we need to be asking ourselves how we can make this information available and understandable to everyone to broaden participation. 
Can all common types of single-use plastic be recycled? For example: cutlery, straws, styrofoam takeout boxes, coffee cups, bags, bottles, and masks? Or is the approach NOT to recycle those and simply to refuse? The approach of the single use plastics law in Chile is to refuse and eliminate those items. The single use plastics law basically says that it is important to realize, accept and admit that some types of plastics are very difficult to be recycled in practice. Recycling is not a solution for everything just like composting is not a solution for everything. There is no silver bullet, plastics pollution is a very complex problem, and different solutions are needed for each specific area that is being tackled. 
How will or is the SA Plastics Pact including waste pickers in decision-making? Waste pickers are the backbone of the recycling industry in South Africa. The African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO) are currently represented on the South African Plastics Pact steering committee and there are existing and planned partnerships going forward. The South African Plastics Pact is committed to working with the informal sector to facilitate and promote fair and decent work. 
What advice or tips would Deshanya from the South African Plastics Pact give the youth of South Africa, in terms of trying to get as many people as possible aware of the issue of plastic pollution and the importance of reusable products. What can the youth do, what can individuals do to help to get businesses and people on this path?You cannot underestimate the impact of one person wanting to make a change. That person can always start a systemic change no matter how big or small they are. Education is of course very important, and it should be promoted in terms of letting everyone understand the resource consumption of packaging and food items that you are consuming on a day-to-day basis. But the key is to start with small steps before you go on to make a systemic change. There is always a small step that can be done, whether its separation at source in your own home, getting your neighbors to do it etc. You don’t have to see it as a huge monstrous task, start with something small and spread it to those around you. 
Guillermo (Head of Circular Economy, Ministry of Environment, Chile), do you think you will need to create your own compostable certification as the ISO standards are not so effective?In the Chilean single-use plastic law it is required that take away products can only use compostable plastics (if they are made of plastics). The same law says that a national certification needs to be created for that. Of course, this certification will build on the international standards. Generating a local standard is key because it should be avoided that compostable plastics that are not really compostable or biodegradable will end up in the organics streams, which would then result in loads of microplastics in the soil. 

Final Programme

5’Opening remarksTessa Goverse, Head of Pollution-Free Ecosystems Unit, UNEP
35’A Life Cycle Approach to Plastic Pollution

Key elements: 1. quantifying hotspots; 2. Defining holistic solutions (e.g. assessed with LCA); 3. Coordinate actors along the value chain responsible for the actions and 4. Prioritise actions; 5. Measure, monitor and report progress towards common goals

Specific examples in UNEP work for those elements
Llorenç Milà i Canals, Head of Secretariat, Life Cycle Initiative (UNEP)

Gerald Naber, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
5’Example 1 (focusing on one or two of the elements above): Country addressing plastic pollution across the life cycle / using life cycle approachesGuillermo González Caballero, Head of Circular Economy Department, Ministry of Environment, Chile
5’Example 2 (focusing on one or two of the elements above): Multi-stakeholder partnershipDeshanya Naidoo, South Africa Plastics Pact
5’Example 3 (focusing on one or two of the elements above): IndustryTom Szaky, Founder and CEO of TerraCycle and Loop
30’Q&A + interventions from stakeholders sharing their experiences with applying a life-cycle approach to plastic pollutionAudience
5’Wrap-up, concluding remarksElisa Tonda, Head of Consumption and Production Unit, UNEP