Today we produce almost 400 million tonnes of plastics every year. Global population growth and a growing middle class means that, in just a few decades, the demand for goods and packaging made from plastics is set to rise three-fold.
Plastics are everywhere and yet we take them for granted. They keep us safe through medical devices, they keep food fresh and hygienic through packaging, and they are an essential part of making aeroplanes fly.
Yet there are also growing concerns about the impacts that plastics are having on our environment. The very features that make plastics so useful – its low cost, its versatility, and the fact it is relatively inert – also make it ubiquitous and persistent in the environment. Moreover, it is unsustainable to continue using finite resources like crude oil to create new plastics.
It’s clear that we need to adopt a more sustainable approach to plastics. Yet while governments have been quick to ban common single-use plastic products like straws and carrier bags, this does not address the fundamental problem: we can’t simply ban all plastics.
This is part of the reason why Pöyry has set up its PlasticsToBio initiative, which aims to make all the world’s plastics bio-based and renew our focus on recycling and re-use. We believe this approach could reduce CO2 emissions by 1Gt a year – every year. It is based on the principle that all plastics have value, even after use – meaning there is a commercial benefit as well as an environmental one. We believe that a global plastic deposit scheme would show the inherent value of plastics and support the collection of plastic waste.
Scaling existing recycling techniques would reduce plastic pollution and emissions produced by incineration. In Europe alone, we produce over 65 million tonnes of plastic but less than a third is collected and less than 15% is recycled. Most plastic waste is incinerated, producing four products: electricity, heat (even in excess), ash and carbon dioxide, where electricity is often the only useful product. Systematically recycling plastic would enable us to repurpose plastic waste and create useful products, however increasing recycling would require larger behavioural shifts. In order to influence public attitudes towards plastic, governments should introduce deposit schemes which reframe plastics as a valuable resource to be preserved.
Once the plastic waste has been collected, there are several ways to reuse the feedstock. Plastics can be mechanically recycled multiple times until their technical properties become so low that it no longer functions. When this happens, chemical recycling is still possible as it breaks the polymers back into monomers or hydrocarbons for subsequent new polymerisation of high-quality, new plastics, until eventually most of the original plastic is lost in energy production.
Chemical recycling presents a golden opportunity for the industry. These recycling plants accept mixed waste, dirty plastics, multilayers and even bio-based waste as feedstock, which can be converted into hydrocarbons or monomers. Although the technology is already available, it will require significant investment to help create a circular plastic economy.
Alongside recycling initiatives, we can gradually introduce bio-based plastics into the plastic feedstock to reduce carbon emissions. There will never be enough virgin biomass to directly replace all plastic production without harming food supplies, however it is possible to replace 10% of fossil fuel plastic feedstock every year by introducing more bio-based plastics. The recycling initiatives detailed above would ensure that we retain and reuse the biofuels added to plastic production as we start recycling bio-plastics. This shift towards bio-plastics could remove 1 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions from atmosphere/year and reduce global emissions by 2.5%.
Decoupling the fossil fuel feedstock on a substantial scale could turn all plastics bio-based in circa 10 years, although in practice it could take 20-30 years. The amount of capital spent on raw materials would decrease thanks to efficient recycling, the money that is freed up can then be directed towards efficient collection and recycling, even when plastics demand grows.
A sustainable plastic future
All in all, it is possible to live in a world which uses plastic in a sustainable fashion and with a reduced environmental impact. The two-fold approach which increases recycling and introduces bio-based plastics into the plastic feedstock will enable us to continue enjoying the benefits of plastic products. Recycling and bio-plastic initiatives could dramatically reduce environmental impact and emissions associated with production and incineration. As set out above, a global shift to a circular bio- plastic economy is a viable and profitable process but it requires engagement with stakeholders in all areas of the plastic value chain: ÅF Pöyry is creating a taskforce to bring together the partners to make this transition a reality. Companies involved in plastics manufacturing, waste management, oil refining, renewable feedstocks, bioplastics, retailers and brands are welcome to join and participate.
Nyman has over 15 years of experience in the chemicals and plastics industry in various roles. Prior to joining Pöyry’s Finnish practice in 2018, Nyman spent almost 5 years at Neste heading their bioplastics and biochemical development programmes.
By Tomi Nyman
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