Industry steps up on recycling and waste management

10:47 AM | February 6, 2020 | Francinia Protti-Alvarez

As waste management and sustainability issues take center stage in the policy debate, the spotlight is on the petrochemical and plastics industry, and the industry’s social license to operate. Stakeholders are collaborating and stepping up their efforts. They are supporting initiatives that improve waste collection value chains and reduce plastics leaking into the environment, as well as R&D activities developing more scalable recycling routes.

Governments in Europe, Asia, and Canada, under pressure from NGOs and public opinion, are setting very aggressive recycling targets for plastics packaging. Bans on single-use plastics have also increased. In the meantime, plastics demand continues to expand worldwide, at 3.5–4%/year, tracking the demographic trends, according to IHS Markit data. 

The Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) was launched up to encourage such collaboration. AEPW consists of more than 40 companies—different stakeholders—which to date have committed over $1.5 billion to help develop solutions that address plastic waste. 

As the circular economy approach emerges, however, the significant gap between the extent of plastics supply around the world and the circular value chain infrastructure in place becomes evident. At present, plastics recycling relies mostly on mechanical processes that remain comparatively small in scale. 

“Until now, markets had not offered strong enough incentives for recycling. But new recycle technologies—along with displacement initiatives by governments and consumer brands—could result in an important change in demand for virgin plastics,” says Dewey Johnson, vice president/basic chemicals insights at IHS Markit. 

Investment in the development of scalable chemical and biological recycling routes could address the need to deploy more efficient plastic waste management processes. From an environmental perspective, chemical and biological recycling could handle larger volumes and a broader spectrum of acceptable plastic waste. The quality of the recycled output would also be more consistent.

From a producer perspective, these routes would mitigate the risk of post-consumer resin replacing virgin product. As an added advantage, these recycling routes could reduce investment needs on feedstocks, monomers, and polymers as well as diminish energy needs, creating an endless recycling loop aligned with the drive toward a circular economy, Johnson notes. 

“However, access to abundant, low-cost feedstock provides extreme competitiveness to the industry in the near term. This feedstock availability could limit the industry’s incentives to devote the resources needed to develop and scale up chemical and biological recycling to quickly reduce the volumes of plastics leaking into the environment,” Johnson says. 

Learn about how the industry is stepping up during the World Petrochemical Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, 24–27 March 2020.