Dare to imagine a better future… starting with plastic
Imagine, if you will, for a second. You just woke up in the year 2040. You look around and it all looks just… normal. But is it really?
You notice the air is fresher and cleaner. It’s free from microplastics and other pollutants thanks to the change in the way people move and travel within urban areas, brought about by legislation passed a couple of decades ago which took advantage of the change of habits caused by the 2020 pandemic to move most motorized traffic out of cities.
The apartment in which you live is built with renewable, healthy, repairable and reusable construction materials. Your home has an incredibly good air quality too, thanks to the absence of fire retardants in furniture, curtains, carpets and other toxics that were previously used in furniture decades ago. This could happen thanks to innovation in the field of chemistry and physics. Technological and social innovation has made it possible for this new generation of mattresses to be built using only one polymer, without fire retardants which therefore allow for high quality recycling at the end of life. This has rapidly increased the value of these products so that producers do not sell them anymore since they prefer to simply keep the property and instead opt for rent and leasing contracts.
You feel stronger and healthier. One of the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis of 2020 was to prioritise people’s access to nutrient-rich, fresh non-processed food in order to build immunity systems. As a consequence, non-communicative diseases such as cancer or diabetes also declined and pandemics have become more manageable.
Thanks to the food policies adopted in 2025, 75% of the food we consume in cities is now grown in urban and peri-urban areas helping to close the nutrients loop. This move was the catalyst for a silent revolution in the food and packaging sector, due to the fact that local fresh food products need less manipulation and added ingredients to preserve them, and can, therefore, be delivered with closed loop reusable packaging systems. The shortening of supply chains has also considerably reduced food waste throughout the value chain and decreased food dependency.As a result of shortened supply chains, together with social and technological innovations, single-use packaging has almost disappeared and with it most of the associated negative health, environmental and economic impacts. Packaging doesn’t become waste anymore as it is constantly reused. Packaging free shops are the norm and nowhere in nature is single-use packaging waste littered, all that remains is the legacy from previous, crazy, decades.
Packaging in itself is a service that is delivered by third parties who guarantee the goods are protected, well-marketed, no toxics enter in contact with the content and its material and use value is fully maintained after every use. Once we have used the packaging there are ways to return it directly to the shop where we bought our products, picked up directly in our house or dropped in special kiosks. On top of that, cities and local municipalities took the initiative to legislate that all businesses which offer food and drink to takeaway should work with reusable packaging. Some of these reusable systems work with the old but effective system of deposit return schemes, whilst others work with systems of incentives and rewards to return the packaging in exchange order to receive discounts and be included in other loyalty programmes locally but all of them preserve the value of the material.All the plastic in the market is under strict control and the quality is assured by an independent body which, since the number of plastics in use has reduced to a few safe polymers and additives, guarantees its traceability and recyclability. In the end, the solution didn’t rely so much on material innovation and finding new polymers, but rather in rationalising the use of those that we already knew and innovating new forms to distribute and consume products.
Beyond packaging, single use plastic for normal applications is almost non-existent. Hygiene items, from wet towels to tampons and nappies, mainly operate with reusable systems. Menstrual cups and period panties with their sterilization infrastructure represent more than 80% of the market today. Thanks to incentives created by the legislation regarding extended producer responsibility, disposable nappies have been mostly replaced with safer and cheaper options. Between trendy home-washed nappies and laundry systems that collect, clean and distribute nappies to nurseries and families this waste stream has almost disappeared, saving money to the community and protecting the babies health.
The global trade of goods and commodities has reduced due to the shortening of supply chains and the circular economy, which have provided more local jobs, increased resilience in communities, resulting in a more equitable income distribution system. This is largely a consequence of the fact that the profits and taxes, which previously used to escape to the pockets of multinationals registered in fiscal paradises, now remain in the communities where they contribute to the local community’s welfare.The production of plastic in absolute terms has decreased; the forecasts of growth from 20 years ago have proven to be wrong as new business models and new ways to organise production were implemented beginning to change the rules of the game. Plastic has finally become a circular material which is almost sustainable, as the new generation of plastics are produced using recycled and bio-based sources. Plastic pollution in the oceans and the climate crisis is the heritage that has been left from the era of fossil fuels.
The flame of the fossil fuel industry is fading away due to the mountains of debt these organisations accumulated during the years of over-investment in big refineries to produce fuel and plastics for which demand vanished. As a result, despite being 2.5 degrees Celsius above the levels of 1995, the planet starts to recover from what is known in history books as “the wild 50”, the 5 decades (from 1980 to 2030) in which humankind reduced biodiversity by 90% and used the carbon budget of the whole 21st and 22nd centuries. Combustion belongs to the past; mobility, lighting, heating, computing are all today run with electricity produced from sources that are renewable and decentralised, most of it produced very close to where it is consumed. Plastic incineration, like coal burning, and any sort of plastic to fuel is about to disappear and recycling is the lowest level in the waste hierarchy. The cycle of materials is almost closed.
Now wake up, we are back to 2020. How does it feel? Does this sound too utopian? More utopian than continuing with the current model? The scenario I just described is technically feasible, in fact, most of the solutions of this utopia are already working today at small scale, the only thing that we need to do is make it happen. As Abraham Lincoln put it, “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” If there is something that we have learnt from history, it is that what separates utopia from reality is, simply, the political will to make it happen.
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