Plastics manufacturers must shift thinking to make EU packaging targets an opportunity

Author: Will Beacham


Fishermen in the harbour of Tripo

LONDON (ICIS)--The European Commission’s new recycling targets for plastic packaging plus moves by retailers to cut the use of the material provide a significant challenge, but also possibly an opportunity, for plastics manufacturers.

The Commission’s new targets launched on 16 January – for 100% of plastic packaging to be recyclable and 55% actually recycled by 2030 – signal the regulator’s determination to crack down on plastic waste. They reflect growing public disquiet about marine pollution and overflowing landfill sites. This is also highlighted by the reaction of some retailers who are going beyond recycling and aim to reduce or cut out plastic packaging altogether.

For example, that same day, UK food retailer Iceland said it aims to eliminate or drastically reduce use of plastic packaging in all its own brand products by 2023. Quite how it will achieve this is not yet clear.

Last year, Unilever committed itself to ensuring all its plastic packaging is fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. It also called on the entire fast-moving consumer goods industry to make faster progress towards the circular economy.

The challenge for industry is to produce plastics that are easily recyclable. Innovative polymer companies can do more by partnering with downstream packaging producers and retailers to design products that do not mix different types of plastic, or at least make them easily separable.

If the sector fails to act then a lot is at stake if demand falls due to product substitution away from plastics. Figures from ICIS Analytics and Consulting show that:

- World polypropylene (PP) used in packaging applications in 2016 was 29.8%, including film and sheets (14.7m tonnes), and rigid packaging such as cups trays, containers and closures (5.5m tonnes)

- World low density polyethylene (LDPE) and linear LDPE (LLDPE) used in flexible packaging was 65.6% of total consumption or 33.1m tonnes

- Total high density polyethylene (HDPE) used in packaging film and sheets in 2016 was 9.5m tonnes or 22.8%, plus HDPE used in injection molding applications such as cups, crates, tubes, and caps was 8.3m tonnes or 19.8%

ICIS consultant Febrizio Galie points out that most of these plastics and others are already recyclable. What is lacking is the collection, sorting and processing facilities to handle the waste.

Here, industry could also play a lead role by taking responsibility along individual value chains to help put the infrastructure in place. Indeed regulators and the public may expect the sector to pay and play its part.

Some plastics manufacturers have taken first steps in this direction. For example, in November last year, LyondellBasell purchased a 50%  stake in Quality Circular Polymers, a Dutch company, which this year will be capable of converting plastic consumer waste into 35,000 tons of polypropylene (PP) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) per year starting in 2018. The company claims it is the first in the plastics sector to pursue this new strategy.

As the world’s largest chemical company, with a big focus on sustainability, BASF can also be expected to take the lead on packaging recycling. The company called for improvements to collection facilities as well as better recycling by the industry.

Klaus Ries, BASF’s vice president at the Styrenic Foams division said: “We need a functioning and economic collection of waste without landfill of recyclable plastics in all EU member states...industry needs to develop appropriate recycling technologies for all significant plastic materials.”

Michael Riethues, chairman of the expandable polystyrene division at EU trade group PlasticsEurope, said that successful recycling of styrenic polymers and polymers in general depends on a mix of regulations, legislative framework and available technology.

Regulators such as the EU will play their part, firstly by pushing the issue through the introduction of targets, but also by injecting money and harmonising labelling, for example, which should make recycling easier.

An EU source told ICIS:  “We will have new harmonised rules for packaging [and] encourage higher recycling rates, we will improve the traceability of chemicals in the product itself so that they give more confidence in the producers to use recyclable material.”

By definition adhering to the circular economy concept – of which the new packaging target is a part - makes a shift to bio-based chemicals a necessity because a key concept is use of renewable resources. There is increasing consumer and regulatory pressure to adopt the circular economy concept.

Chemical companies should get ready for a move away from non-renewable feedstocks in conventional petrochemicals. According to Jan-Willem van den Beukel, global circular economy leader for sustainability at consultancy PwC: “It is better for chemical companies to prepare for it now. Stakeholder, regulatory and consumer pressure makes the switch to bio-based feedstock inevitable.”

Pictured: Garbage swimming in the water at the Port of Tripoli, Libya
Source: Egmont Strigl/mageBROKER/REX/Shutterstock

Focus article by Will Beacham

Additional reporting by Vasiliki Parapouli, Pavle Popovic and Niall Swan