Opinion: Creating a sustainable future for plastics with a circular economy
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 tons 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.