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.