The benefits of engineered and commodity plastics to society are clear and well established, including their specialized functional performance across a wide range of applications and sectors (e.g., consumer products and packaging, health care, transportation, buildings) and the many associated environmental benefits they provide (e.g., vehicle lightweighting, energy saving insulation, life cycle solid waste reduction from food packaging). The sustainability challenges surrounding current plastics end-of-life management practices, however, are growing and demanding urgent action. Challenges include low recycling rates and collapsing markets for recovered materials, as well as growing plastic contamination of the oceans resulting from failure to properly steward these materials. Responses to these problems range from communities implementing plastic product bans to new technologies being commercialized that can convert plastic waste into fuel.
Given the scale, diversity, and complexity of the plastic materials management problem, a systems analysis framework, which encompasses materials production, product manufacturing, use, and end-of-life management processes is necessary to guide and accelerate technology and market based solutions. Understanding the constraints and opportunities associated with the technology, policy, and market drivers that influence plastics flows in the global economy is crucial.