Brand-owners start to focus on renewable carbon

Consumer demand


The original debate on plastics recycling owed its prominence to Ellen MacArthur, the yachtswoman who was appalled by the volume of plastic waste in the oceans, as she sailed round the world.

This led her to set up her Foundation, which soon began to work with the World Economic Forum in developing the New Plastics Economy concept. And the issue was then brought into the wider public domain with Sir David Attenborough’s BBC series, Blue Planet 2 in 2017. As the BBC reported:

“Blue Planet II viewers couldn’t hold back the tears last night after watching a whale carry its dead newborn across the ocean.”

In turn, of course, this quickly brought brand-owners into the debate, and politicians – as consumers, of course, have votes. And the sudden interest quickly identified a strong economic argument:

“Why was the world paying $70/bbl for oil, and more for processing/transporting it, only to then throw away single-use plastic products after just a few minutes of use?”

In a world focused on sustainability, this made no sense.  Today, as the chart confirms, the debate is moving into a new dimension. A new study from the Nova Institute, carried out on behalf of Unilever, highlights the need to transform today’s plastics industry to use renewable carbon instead of fossil fuels:

“Contrary to energy, it is not possible to decarbonise chemicals and products. The renewable carbon family is the only pathway to a sustainable future for commonly used materials such as plastics, fibres, surfactants and other materials based on organic chemistry, and the industries that produce them.”

“The chemical sector uses 67 Mt of renewable carbon annually, covering 15% of the total demand of embedded carbon (450 Mt). The authors predict that the demand for embedded carbon could reach 1000 Mt by 2050. In other words, renewable carbon production will have to be increased by a factor of 15 by 2050 to cover the needs of the chemical and material sector.”

The significant point, of course, is that the report is not produced for an NGO hoping to change the world. It was carried out for one of the world’s largest companies, and one that has demonstrated considerable ability to change the world in the past.

It also highlights, ahead of COP26 in November, the critical importance of managing “embedded carbon” – carbon currently used in today’s products. Doing nothing is not an option, as it means most embedded carbon will end up in the atmosphere as CO2.

Equally, as discussed last week, it is now clear that plastics companies have to adopt recycled feedstock in a major way if they want to continue in business. Fossil fuel-based feedstocks are set to quickly disappear from the market, as the Oil Age comes to an end, due to the need to meet Net Zero targets.

The authors’ research therefore suggests that recycling is set to become the major source of plastics by 2050, accounting for an estimated 2/3rds of production. And it is likely it will operate on the basis of the above model, with Collection becoming the “sweet spot” in the value chain as I discussed last month.  CO2 and bio-based sources will account for the rest. As they note, this will require:

“The biggest transformation of the chemical sector since the industrial revolution.”

It also, of course, creates a major opportunity for companies to work with brand-owners and legislators to achieve this transformation to a Circular Economy, based on Advanced Manufacturing. The good news is that the chances of success are high, given the detailed planning contained in last year’s Sustainable Plastic Strategy, produced jointly by the major industry groups, including CEFIC and PlasticsEurope.


Friends of the Earth v Royal Dutch Shell - what did the Dutch Court rule, and what does it mean for Shell’s business?


My Dutch colleague, Daniël de Blocq van Scheltinga, is a graduate of Leiden Uni...

Learn more

"When all the experts and forecasts agree — something else is going to happen", Bob Farrell


In January, “everyone knew” that inflation was about to take off, an...

Learn more
More posts
PlasticsEurope calls for mandatory 30% recycling target for packaging by 2030

The European plastics industry last week took the crucial first step in moving away from virgin plas...

Samsung stumbles in global smartphone market as Xiaomi overtakes Apple

Smartphone sales confirm that global markets are continuing to pivot to the New Normal world. Back i...

“One size no longer fits all” as the global smartphone market breaks down into different segments

The pandemic was very good news for some companies, with demand for online activities rocketing. But...

Biden’s Earth Day Summit puts plastics recycling on the fast track

Plastics has long been the ‘odd one out’ in terms of recycling. Steel, aluminium, glass,...

Americans hunker down on spending as the pandemic’s impact continues

US stock markets have been hitting new records recently, as investors swoon over the idea that the $...

Circular economy set to replace today’s broken global supply chains

The Great Freeze in Texas has confirmed once again the problems with today’s global supply cha...

Smartphone sales highlight new trends in consumer markets

Smartphone markets continue to provide early warning of the major changes taking place in consumer m...

Buyers scramble for product as global supply chains breakdown

Asian LNG prices reached $32.50/MMBTU this month, up from less than $2/MMBTU in June. The Shanghai C...


Market Intelligence

ICIS provides market intelligence that help businesses in the energy, petrochemical and fertilizer industries.

Learn more


Across the globe, ICIS consultants provide detailed analysis and forecasting for the petrochemical, energy and fertilizer markets.

Learn more

Specialist Services

Find out more about how our specialist consulting services, events, conferences and training courses can help your teams.

Learn more

ICIS Insight

From our news service to our thought-leadership content, ICIS experts bring you the latest news and insight, when you need it.

Learn more