Denmark lays out vision for a New Plastics Economy

Eight million tons of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans every year. It’s a phenomenon Denmark knows well: Every year 1,000 tons of waste wash up on Denmark’s western coast.

One reason plastics leak into our ecosystem is a lack of infrastructure and technology coupled with a regulatory climate ill-equipped to cut down on plastics use. Lately, organizations have begun to fill this gap by developing the concept of a new plastics economy—one that achieves full recycling of consumer and industrial plastics, develops sustainable alternatives, and eliminates pollution from already in-use plastics.

A recent report from Innovation Fund Denmark and McKinsey & Company argues that Denmark is uniquely positioned to become a frontrunner in the new plastics economy. There are clear benefits should Denmark choose to adopt it: The full economic potential of the plastics waste stream could save Denmark more than DKK 1.6 billion a year.


Denmark is currently one-third of the way toward reaching its 2025 and 2030 EU recycling obligations for plastics packaging waste. To make the goal on time, Denmark will continue to shift away from incineration, where more than half of Danish plastics waste currently goes, to recycling. The Danish government and private-sector organizations can work together to standardize efficient, sustainable ways of collecting, sorting, and recycling waste for the long-term environmental health of the country.

Another way for Denmark to ease the transition from incineration to recycling is to require plastics purchased with public funds be made from a certain amount of recycled materials. The country can also tax virgin plastics to incentivize the use of recycled materials in plastics production, and expand its already successful deposit refund system, which has resulted in the return of nine out of 10 single-use bottles and cans.


Academics, industry leaders, and regulators can set a research and innovation agenda to address four key short-term issues: the sources of plastic waste, the characteristics of microplastics, the use and development of recycling technologies, and the impact of plastics pollution on individual and societal health.

Denmark, known globally for a tradition of efficient design, can leverage its strengths to make materials and design choices for recycled plastic products. Technological innovation will play a role too: Waste management collection and sorting could be improved using multiple AI technologies and advanced sensors.


Denmark cannot solve the plastics challenge alone, but it can tap into Europe’s broader “circular economy” opportunity, which by 2030 is estimated to be worth EUR 45 billion in potential value creation from recycling plastics.

To effectively participate, Denmark could identify and establish viable markets for both recycled and new sustainable plastics. It could lead the development of bio-based plastics within already-established industries in Denmark, which are attractive to companies committed to reducing or eliminating their carbon footprint. Finally, it can lead consumer education and awareness about plastics as a way to stimulate broad-based demand for sustainably sourced or recycled products.

Denmark’s plastics challenge offers an opportunity for the country to lead research, innovation, and business solutions that recoup the value lost in today’s linear plastic market and create and expand a more circular plastics economy. Denmark appears to be ready to meet this challenge.

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