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Chapter 1

The state of play

Norway is at the forefront of the global plastic and sustainable ocean agenda yet falling short in achieving a zero-waste circular plastic economy

Norway is a global leader in plastic policy and circularity innovation

Norway has been actively concerned about the impact of plastic packaging on the environment for decades. Its first beverage packaging plastic tax was introduced as early as the 1970s and, in 1994, the tax was divided into two per unit – a basic tax for single-use containers and a variable tax which varies as a function of packaging return rates. In 1999, Norway was a pioneer in the introduction of a formally regulated, national plastic deposit return system (DRS) with a focus on plastic beverage bottles.

But, interestingly, the DRS system itself was not set up by the authorities, instead the government put a regulation into force with requirements for the return systems (including deposit rates if a deposit system is in place) and a related tax system, leaving return companies flexibility to develop their own ways of operating and incentives for achieving high collection rates. This was later incorporated into Norway’s 2004 waste regulations. Between 2018 and 2020, the scheme achieved return rates of around 85-90% for PET bottles 2 – proving to be one of the most effective in the world.

In parallel, in 1997, Grønt Punkt Norge (Green Dot Norway) was established to manage the extended producer responsibility (EPR) commitments of the industry. Since 2017 3, and following the implementation of relevant EU legislation including Directive 94/62/EF on packaging and packaging waste, EPR schemes for packaging have been mandatory. Today it is estimated that Grønt Punkt Norge covers approximately 75% of plastic packaging put on the market, while competing companies have been established 4. In addition, a landfill ban regulating biodegradable (organic) waste streams, such as food-waste entered into force in 2009.

“When measured against the ambition to become a zero-waste circular plastic economy, Norway’s current efforts are falling significantly short.”

From an innovation standpoint, Norway is home to several technology leaders and solution providers in plastic waste and plastic pollution.

Examples include:

Collection systems – e.g. return vending machine (RVM) systems, TOMRA

Sorting technologies – e.g. TOMRA

Recycling technologies – e.g. Quantafuel, Othalo, Recycls

Alternative materials – e.g. the R&D provider SINTEF Ocean, Sulapac

Enabling technologies – e.g. Empower

Clean-Up technologies – e.g. Spilltech, LoVeMar

Disposal technologies – e.g. Fortum Oslo Varme (FOV), one of the first companies in the world to try carbon capture and storage on an incinerator

But there is a significant gap in achieving a zero-waste circular plastic economy domestically

Norway’s plastic system is better than most: 85% of people have access to separation at source 5 and most of the remainder has access to mixed waste collection that is sorted in advanced specialised material recovery facilities (MRFs). Additionally, reported recycling rates are higher than the global average (especially for bottles), consumers prioritise environmental concerns, and Norway has one of the most successful EPR programmes in the world.


And yet – when measured against the ambition to become a zero-waste circular plastic economy (see Box 1.) – Norway’s current efforts are falling significantly short. We estimate that more than 72% of Norwegian plastic waste is sent to waste-to-energy incineration, meaning the plastic industry is still predominantly a resource-intensive, linear system.

The bottle deposit system is successful by any international standard, but beverage bottles represent less than 10% of Norway’s plastic waste 6. This successful scheme actually runs the risk of distracting society from other plastic products that have low recycling rates despite representing the lion’s share of plastic waste. Furthermore, the deposit system could be acting as a disincentive to introducing plastic bottle reduction measures that are more environmentally impactful than recycling.

Even the addition of the new EPR schemes and requirements for sorting plastics currently being developed cannot alone turn Norway into a zero-waste circular plastic economy. Norway’s entire plastic system, and especially its heavy reliance on fossil-based feedstock and incineration, needs to undergo significant changes if it wants to lead the world in building a zero-waste circular plastic economy. This report provides a science-based analysis of the different strategies available to achieve this goal, while accounting for potential trade-offs. Starting from the way the system operates in 2019 and drawing outlooks up to 2040, we focus on the main circularity levers of reduction, substitution and recycling – which together make up the “circularity index” -– and then highlight potential gaps. The circularity index is defined in this report as the sum of reduced, substituted and recycled plastic utility, divided by the total plastic utility 7

Zero-waste circular plastic economy vision

This is an economy where waste is designed out, products are kept in use, and material value is recirculated to the maximum extent of technical capabilities with the ultimate goal of regenerating natural systems.

Plastic consumption is limited to unavoidable items and plastic products are designed for recycling and recycled using existing technology that is economically viable at scale. Use of recycled content is the norm, leading to highly efficient markets for plastic recyclates. Waste-to-energy incineration is used as a last resort technology for unavoidable and unrecyclable products. This framework aims not only to promote resourcealigned models but also to put people and the planet back at the centre of the system.

This agenda will strengthen Norway’s leadership on ocean health and marine litter

With just over 5 million inhabitants, Norway already has a disproportionate impact on the global ocean agenda. As a founding member and co-chair of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, Norway is leading the way towards a future that has a healthy ocean and, more specifically, “stopping land-based pollution” among its core pillars. Norway is also playing a key role in the plastic and marine litter discussions at the United Nations Environment Assembly, where support is growing for the establishment of a global agreement on plastics that could lead to a new international instrument similar to the Paris Agreement. Norway is at the forefront of this global effort 8.

In parallel, in 2018 Norway launched the Norwegian Development Programme to Combat Marine Litter and Microplastics, an ambitious initiative to fight ocean plastic pollution globally. With the goal of supporting Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14.1 to significantly reduce marine pollution by 2025, the programme will deploy approximatively NOK 1.6 billion (approximatively US$ 200 million) between 2019 and 2022. It is prioritising several key catalytic action points: (1) development of sound landbased waste management systems; (2) scale-up of research programmes that contribute to finding technological solutions; and (3) supporting initiatives that increase marine litter awareness, including beach clean-ups.

Norway’s marine litter leadership and credibility is diminished, however, by the fossil-fuel-intensive, linear system it uses to manage its own plastic waste. Establishing a successful zero-waste circular plastic economy domestically would have a powerful demonstration effect on other countries and put Norway at the centre of the global stage for this critical challenge.

The European Union is stepping up ambition levels and expectations

In 2018, the European Commission adopted the European Strategy for Plastics and, in 2020, as a cornerstone of the European Green Deal, the new Circular Economy Action Plan presented ambitious measures to support the transition to a circular economy in Europe, including a boost for recycling. Recent amendments to the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive also set new targets for the recycling of packaging waste: 65% by 2025 and 70% by 2030, including material specific targets for plastic packaging of 50% by 2025 and 55% by 2030.9

In addition, the EU recently adopted a new definition for recycling (used in this report), which now excludes losses from sorting and recycling processes, thus creating a de facto technical ceiling10.

Legislation related to the ambitions set out in the Circular Economy Action Plan also includes a landfill ban for recyclables by 2025 and a resource efficiency target of 30% by 2030, aimed at stimulating demand for recyclate materials within the EU.

Minimising the export of waste and tackling illegal shipments are mentioned as areas of attention for the coming years. As substantial parts of the legislation related to the European Green Deal and new Circular Economy Action Plan fall within the scope of the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement, Norway is contributing to the development of these initiatives and will play an active role in their implementation.

The EU’s vision is to incentivise circular, waste-free business models that reduce consumption through reverse logistics, take back systems, and re-use and/or repair schemes. It will encourage brands to re-think their packaging strategies by ensuring the right materials are used for the right applications, taking end-of-life into account. Key to the development of EU legislation is the empowerment of consumers by broadening their consumption choices and highlighting key environmental trade-offs in products, for example in terms of durability and reparability.

Harmonising the separate collection of waste and an ambitious product policy framework across the EU – including measures on labelling, standards, and product requirements – are also high on the agenda to ensure the benefits of the design-for-recycling guidelines are maximised.

This is a clear call to action for Norway to build a zero-waste circular plastic economy and continue to lead the way toward ambitious environmental policies.

About this project:

A science-driven scenario model to quantify the economic, environmental and social implications of different plastic pathways

In July 2020, SYSTEMIQ and The Pew Charitable Trusts published “Breaking the Plastic Wave” to provide a sciencebased pathway to dealing with the plastic challenge on a global level. “Breaking the Plastic Wave” was independently peer-reviewed and published in the scientific journal Science.

Through the “Achieving Circularity” report we are bringing the “Breaking the Plastic Wave” approach and framework to the Norwegian context. It relies on a model designed to quantify key flows and stocks in the plastic system and assess the economic, environmental and social impacts of different pathways available to transform the Norwegian plastic system.

A more complete explanation of our approach, methodology, and detailed assumptions can be found in the technical report.

The goal of this analysis is to provide a new evidence base to inform Norwegian decision-makers across government, business, civil society, and academia as they evaluate complex trade-offs, set targets, and implement solutions to the plastic challenge.

To help this process, we also developed the Plastsimulator, an open-access, dynamic scenario analysis tool that allows stakeholders to create their own scenarios and evaluate the benefits, risks and trade-offs of different system choices. By giving everyone access to this science-based, practical and democratised tool, we hope to accelerate the transition to a zero-waste circular plastic economy in Norway and beyond.


Project Scope


Plastic waste generated in Norway

‘000 Tonnes/year, 100% = 540,000 tonnes in 2019

In scope

~289k tonnes (54%)

Out of scope

~250k tonnes (46%)

Project scope

The plastic analysed in this project includes plastic waste from both households and industry and is close to the definition of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) used in the EU Waste Framework Directive11. It encompasses all post-consumer plastic packaging and non-electrical household goods as well as waste generated by commercial activities that is similar to household waste by nature. We expanded this scope to also include industrial packaging so that all plastic packaging waste generated in Norway is covered in this project. The project scope represents approximately 54% of the total plastic waste generated in Norway, as shown in Exhibit 112.

It excludes the following main categories: electronics, textiles, automotive industry (including tyres), construction materials, agricultural plastic waste and waste coming from aquaculture and fisheries, and other small industrial waste streams. Primary microplastics 13 are also not analysed in this study.

Plastic waste in Norway is collected by municipalities directly or through private waste hauling companies. It can be collected as a single product stream (e.g. through a deposit system), a single waste stream (e.g. mixed plastic sorted at source by businesses or households), or as mixed waste along with other materials and residuals, depending on the product application or assumption made.


Our analysis defines 10 system interventions and models the most important economic, environmental, and social implications of applying different combinations of these changes to the system at different ambition levels. Six possible scenarios for achieving a zero-waste circular plastic economy in Norway, each comprising a different combination of system interventions, are presented in this report, as shown in Exhibit 2.


System interventions modelled under each scenario

“Our analysis models the economic, environmental, and social indicators that matter of each scenario”



Assumes no intervention is made in relation to current plastic-related policy, economics, infrastructure, or materials, and that cultural norms and consumer behaviour do not change.


Reduce & Substitute:

Assumes ambitious reduction of plastic use through elimination, ambitious introduction of reuse and new delivery models, ambitious investment in and introduction of plastic substitutes where beneficial, and a shift toward full implementation of design for recycling guidelines. This scenario maximises reduction and substitution until they reach technical, economic, political or environmental limits. It requires strong policy interventions to regulate specific short-lived plastics and incentivise business model redesign and product redesign for reuse and reduction


Scale-up of the Sorting Backbone:

Assumes full implementation of design for recycling guidelines, moderate increased sorting at source, scale-up of national sorting infrastructure to process most of the plastic waste included in the project scope, increased demand for recyclates, investment in sorting technology efficiency, and controlling the fate of exports.


Central Sorting and Recycling Scale-up:

Assumes full implementation of design for recycling guidelines, scale-up of a uniform national mixed waste collection system and central sorting infrastructure to process all plastic waste in the project scope, moderate development of recycling processing capacity, increased demand for recyclates, investment in sorting and recycling technology efficiency, development of chemical conversion, and controlled export fate.14


Ambitious sorting & recycling scale-up:

Assumes full implementation of design for recycling guidelines, moderate increase of sorting at source, scale-up of national sorting infrastructure to process most of the plastic waste included in the project scope, increased demand for recyclates, full development of recycling processing capacity, investment in sorting and recycling technology efficiency, development of chemical conversion, and controlled export fate.14


System Change Scenario:

Assumes all 10 system interventions are applied concurrently and ambitiously. This scenario benefits from the synergies between upstream and downstream interventions as it is the only one that includes both.

We categorised the fate of plastic utility into five “wedges” representing possible responses to the plastic challenge:


Reduction of plastic production and consumption without substituting with other short-lived materials. Subwedges include eliminating plastic (e.g. product redesign, reduced overpackaging, and plastic bans), and new product delivery models (e.g. re-use, refill services, shifting products to services, e-commerce, and dispensers).


Substitution (where beneficial) with alternative materials that meet functional requirements for specific applications but are more easily recyclable or compostable after use. Subwedges include paper, and industrially compostable or home-compostable materials. This wedge includes substitutions with single-use materials only; multi-use substitutions are included under “Reduce”, even if they do not completely reduce the system’s material requirements


Recycling of products or materials. Sub-wedges include mechanical closed-loop recycling, mechanical open-loop recycling, and plastic-to-plastic chemical conversion systems that produce new packaging, products, or feedstock. Plastic-to-fuel chemical conversion is not included.


Controlled disposal of plastic waste in ways that prevent leakage to the ocean. Sub-wedges include sanitary landfills (but not dumpsites), waste-toenergy incineration, and plastic-to-fuel technologies.


Any plastic waste that is not included in the other four wedges is considered mismanaged waste. This includes waste that is open burned, or either dumped directly on or leaked into land or waterways. This category includes all environmental plastic pollution.

The detailed project methodology, as well as a full list of assumptions and sources, can be found in the technical report.