Technological watch

New waste alliance about innovation, not just Asia

A lot of the initial focus of the industry's $1.5 billion announcement this week of its Alliance to End Plastic Waste is on Asia, which makes sense.

It's where some of the worst plastic ocean pollution can be found — Asia is home to eight of the 10 rivers worldwide delivering the highest load of plastic litter out to sea.

So it's logical that the more than two dozen companies in the groundbreaking effort are putting a lot of attention on projects in Indonesia, India, the Philippines and other emerging economies.

But to see the announcement as only about Asia, about companies trying to muster some resources to help invest in waste management to capture plastics in Asia, I think misses the point.

The high-profile London announcement on Jan. 16 included some clear signals that another focus will be on finding ways to reduce the environmental footprint of plastics use globally and make plastics more circular.

That could include better ways to physically recycle plastic so it can be used in products, or more work in less proven areas like chemical recycling, to break down the plastic waste materials back into basic feedstocks.

BASF SE CEO Martin Brudermueller said at the launch ceremony that technological innovation will be key. The company has its own project, dubbed ChemCycling, to use mixed plastic waste to make virgin polymers.

"I think what we have to do more now is look at innovation in terms of the circular economy, how can we really close the loop," Brudermueller said. "I think we have to work on how we get this material back and that means we have to convert it, maybe very much to the basics and then use it to really rebuild new materials and develop new materials."

It's a lofty goal. Brudermueller was aiming toward it but also seemed to caution against expecting quick breakthroughs.

"We should be aware that a lot of the technologies are relatively young, in a more infant stage," he said. "We should also not forget that huge investment is associated with this. This is why the alliance has taken so much the innovation part as well as the investment part."

I was thinking about that this week while talking with Recology. The San Francisco-based company picks up trash and recyclables on the West Coast and has been central to the city's high recycling rate.

But it's so frustrated by problems with plastics recycling and plastic pollution in the oceans that it's committing $1 million toward putting a referendum on the ballot in California. It wants to ask voters to approve European Union-style rules on plastics packaging, which means things like fees, bans and hard recycling targets. After California voters approved a statewide plastic bag ban in 2016, it's certainly possible a vote on EU-style plastics rules could pass.

I thought of my conversation with Recology as a sort of "thermoplastic rubber hits the road" moment.

Recology told me it has followed the new technologies around plastics recycling for years, including chemical recycling, but it hasn't seen anything that's commercially scalable.

Recology hasn't seen anything that, in the words of CEO Michael Sangiacomo, can handle "the enormous influx of single-use plastic materials into the marketplace."

And with China closing off its doors last year to much of the plastic waste U.S. used to ship there, there'll be more pressure to find homegrown solutions.

So can this new, groundbreaking $1.5 billion pledge from the plastics value chain — from both plastics makers and consumer brands that use plastics packaging — produce changes that address plastics concerns raised by Recology and others?

The Alliance to End Plastic Waste is a major commitment from its member companies to try to address plastic waste and is a significant step forward for the industry.

If it can help produce a good answer to Sangiacomo's question, it'll also go down as a significant step forward for society.

Toloken is news editor-international at Plastics News. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.

Publication date: 23/01/2019

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Last update: 2019-09-18