UN sustainability goals kick off surge of plastic-waste activism

Author: Al Greenwood


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (ICIS)--The publication of a list of sustainability goals by the UN laid the foundation for a surge of activism to reduce plastic waste, the head of Covestro LLC said on Tuesday.

Another impetus besides the UN17 was a series of graphic photos showing the effects that plastic pollution has had on marine wildlife, said Jerry MacCleary, CEO of Covestro LLC. He is also chairman of the executive committee of the board of directors of the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

He made his comments at the group's annual meeting.

The chemical industry has always highlighted and recognised the environmental benefits of their products, but this has been on a sporadic basis.

For years, Dow Chemical has showcased new plastic products that allow packages to be made solely of one resin, making it easier to recycle them. Other Dow products allowed companies to achieve the same performance with less plastic, allowing them to save money and meet their internal sustainability goals.

For polyurethanes, of which Covestro is a major producer, companies have marketed the powerful insulating properties of their products, which allowed buildings to cut energy consumption and for appliances to consume less power.

The industry's trade group, the Center for the Polyurethanes Industry, has regularly recognised company products that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce vehicle weight through its Polyurethanes Innovation Awards.

Recently, government and even trade groups have placed more attention on recycling plastic and reducing waste.

The EU adopted plans to reduce consumption for single-use plastics, to restrict the use of microplastics and to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030

Even more initiatives are coming out of Europe, including plans to raise recycling rates for municipal waste and require labels listing the durability timelines for plastics.

The ACC has set goals to recover and recycle all plastic packaging by 2040.

During the annual meeting, the ACC released a mission statement listing its goals for making the industry more sustainable.

To achieve the goals of the ACC and the industry, chemical companies need to do more than just tell their story or become advocates, said Bob Patel, CEO of LyondellBasell and the chairman the ACC's board of directors.

It has to pursue actual concrete solutions, he said.

For its part, LyondellBasell has created a joint venture with a waste management company called SUEZ. Under it, SUEZ collects waste and sorts out the polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP). LyondellBasell processes the waste resin, allowing it to be used once more.

Like many companies in the US, LyondellBasell is building a new plant in the US that will allow customers to make products with the same properties while still using less plastic.

Back when the companies first started announcing their new plant projects in the early part of this decade, they saw this quality as a competitive advantage – customers could save money by purchasing their high-performance resins.

Now, the plastics produced by these new plants come with an additional benefit by allowing the producers and the customers meet new environmental and sustainability goals.

MacCleary highlighted the sustainability of his company's products. Covestro uses carbon dioxide (CO2) to produce polyols, one of the main raw materials used to make polyurethanes.

Rigid-foam polyurethanes are among the most powerful insulators, allowing buildings, houses and refrigerators to consume less energy.

Mark Vergnano, CEO of Chemours and another ACC officer, talked about his company's hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), a material that is used as a refrigerant and a blowing agent for polyurethanes. It replaces an older generation of materials that were powerful greenhouse gases.

In short, the chemical industry will be critical to sustainability because they produce materials that reduce the weight of finished goods, that allow them to last longer and that reduce energy consumption.

Banning some plastic products like packaging could even reduce overall sustainability, said Steve Russell, vice president, plastics division, ACC. New plastic packaging extends the shelf life of food.

If it is banned, then food waste would increase. Farmers would need to spend more money on fertilizer and agrochemicals to raise more crops and shippers would have to burn more fuel to transport more food.

Patel said the whole value chain needs to be considered to increase sustainability. Chemical companies need to develop new materials, processors need to develop packaging and other products that use less plastic, consumers need ways to responsibly dispose of trash and waste-management companies need the ability to collect it and sort it.

One of the biggest sustainability challenges is the lack of regulatory capacity among emerging economies.

Plastics demand in these countries is growing at fast rates, and they are responsible for much of waste that is ends up in the oceans of the world.

And yet, they often lack the infrastructure to collect waste and the ability to enforce existing regulations or draft new ones.

"One of the fundamental challenges is the lack of a regulatory framework," said Cal Dooley, head of the ACC.

Often, it is difficult to make cleaning up waste a priority when countries face much more pressing and immediate needs, such as feeding children, building schools and providing health to the populace, Dooley said.

Still, the industry can facilitate investment and help these countries develop a better waste management system.

Meanwhile, there is still plenty that the rest of the world can still do to reduce plastic waste.

Focus article by Al Greenwood