Process & Chemicals

Cleaning up plastic waste: moving towards circularity

In this post, I’ll be exploring how the Chemical industry has a key role to play with the manufacturing of these items and I also speak with Mike Witt, Corporate Director, EH&S and Sustainability at Dow and co-chair of the Plastics Leadership Group at the International Council of Chemical Associations and his thoughts on how we can transform our linear model to a circular economy.

The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly reignited our relationship with single-use, more specifically PPE. Globally, its estimated 129 billion disposable facemasks and 65 billion throwaway gloves are being used every month throughout the pandemic. Without it, the world would be seeing a much higher rate of infection and front-line workers heavily impacted.

But this now raises the question, how do we as a global population minimise the environmental impacts of single-use moving forward? Second to global relief efforts, we now must consider the environmental implications of these items and the physical threat these pose to our oceans.

Is bio-based the solution?

Early Adopters

We can take note from other industries such as Food & Beverage who with companies such as Coca-Cola as early as 2009, who have been leading the way in utilizing renewable feedstock plastics as part of their packaging design to help reduce plastic waste.

In a recent statement, Scott Pearson, senior director of global R&D innovation at The Coca-Cola Company says “It’s about driving a circular economy and using and reusing our resources more efficiently. Part of that, for plastics, means using renewable feedstock materials that are not based on fossil fuels.”

A decade later, and the environmental consequences of single-use plastics are still a major talking point across boardrooms. With mounting pressure from consumers and government, the plastics value chain needs to continually evolve, bringing new technology in the form of biobased materials where contributing feedstocks are either sustainable (plant/ organic based) or recycled.

Collaboration is key

The continued adoption of biobased plastics and multi-use products is key to the continued growth of the circular economy, but the development of new technology and processes is an expensive and timely exercise.

Committing to such costs and multi-year programs on the prediction of market need is a hedging strategy and in previous decades, a decision many shareholders would simply not have committed to. This perception is now considered outdated, with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues now a major contributing factor for investors.

We can’t afford for anyone to hoard good ideas if they could help protect the planet.

James Quincey, CEO

Coca-Cola

Since Quincey’s statement in 2019, Coca-Cola has seen a number of first to market products and joints ventures which are significantly contributing to the circular plastics economy, UPM Formi EcoAce, contains certified renewable PP polymers produced by SABIC, bio-based polypropylene and bio-based low-density polyethylene via the Neste / LyondellBasell JV.

Leading global players such Neste are committed to supporting industry forerunners and will be key to driving a paradigm shift in the plastic industry from the top of the value stream and their continued willingness to partner with global polymers producers such as Covestro, LyondellBasell and Borealis is visible proof of positive steps forward.

Sustainable materials and cultural change must be synchronous for a circular economy to be enabled

I spoke with Mike Witt, Corporate Director, EH&S and Sustainability at Dow and co-chair of the Plastics Leadership Group at the International Council of Chemical Associations. He noted that despite bio-based feedstock materials being used to manufacture single-use plastics, regardless of the feedstock used, these materials can still end up in the environment. Cultural change must happen at the same time with efforts at all levels in order to change our attitude towards plastics.

As we look towards a low-carbon future, Mike says that innovation is key. “As our industry continues to develop new circular technologies, we can drive more efficient feedstock utilization in addition to product reuse and recycle. This is how a circular economy will be enabled.”

We have seen progressive steps being taken by companies like TerraCycle who are at the forefront of the reuse and recycle movement, by disrupting the consumer recycling processes, Loop (a Terracycle subsidiary) are making the reuse of plastic packaging significantly easier and passing the costs onto the producers.

As the Plastics industry moves from linear to circular with top-down support and increased consumer demand, this is providing major producers food for thought. It is positive to see major players proactively addressing the issue and building the right capabilities internally to move their portfolios towards more sustainable products.

From taxes on plastic bags to the Plastics Pact which recently saw the launch of the US Plastics Pact at Circularity20, resistance is being met with varying laws and policy from world government and NGO although I hope to see an accelerated adoption of bioplastics and sustainable feedstocks by all.

If you’re looking for your next challenge in the chemicals sector, then why not get in touch with me at tim.essex@procoglobal.com today? I’m currently recruiting for leading companies in this field and would love to talk.

For further reading, view my other article further discussing a circular economy and how businesses can reduce single-use plastic waste

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