Is the EU plan the end of petrochemicals?

23 January 2018 23:06 Source:ICIS Chemical Business

Although 2050 seems a long way off, in terms of the chemical industry investment cycle – where large capital investment produces assets which endure for decades – it should be on the horizon.

By then, , the region will have an “innovative, circular economy where nothing is wasted and where natural resources are managed sustainably.”

This long-term objective is driving current and future legislation including the objective, unveiled in January, of making all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030.

But the implications of developing a truly circular economy go way beyond this to challenge the fundamentals underlying the petrochemical industry, namely its use of fossil-fuel-derived feedstocks, according to consultants PwC. One of the concept’s fundamental principles is to move from a “linear” economy, relying on consumption of finite resources, to one based on renewable resources.

 Richard Isaac/LNP/REX/Shutterstock

Circular economy may require a big shift to renewables

For an industry currently 90%+ reliant on oil or gas-derived feedstocks, there will be huge challenges ahead if customers, regulators and shareholders push this agenda hard. A circular economy runs on renewable energy, biomass and smart usage of finite resources.

At present most of the chemicals industry is taking only modest steps in this direction, rather than re-
examining core growth strategies with this in mind.

According to Jan-Willem van den Beukel, PwC’s global circular economy leader for sustainability, the circular economy is an unstoppable force that will oblige the chemical sector to retool its production assets. “This will require huge investments in different processes. It is a dot on the horizon – replacing fossil fuels – but in the long run it’s inevitable for this to occur. Considering the investment cycle for chemicals it’s already casting a shadow.”

Van den Beukel is optimistic the industry can achieve this transformation because there are many forces driving it from linear to circular. The first is not regulation, it is changing consumer behaviour, B2B as well as B2C. He highlights the example of Unilever, which in 2017 introduced a target of 100% recyclable plastic packaging by 2025. It did this not because of regulation, but because it was the right thing to do and is expected by customers.

At the 2018 Davos World Economic Forum, taking place this week, it was announced that 11 global companies have pledged to work towards 100% recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025.

SHIFT TO BIO-BASED

“There may be a small place for finite resources but as a principle the circular economy mimics the natural system. This implies you rely on regenerative resources and fossil fuels are not regenerative,” says van den Beukel. Companies must prepare for the shift to bio-based feedstocks. Also impossible to ignore is the EU’s Emissions Trading System, which has a ceiling on carbon dioxide emissions that may gradually increase energy costs.

“As carbon prices increase, it will become less attractive to use fossil-based feedstocks. Stakeholder pressure, investor pressure and regulatory pressure means that sooner or later, it’s the route you have to take.”

He adds: “You can fight it for five to 10 years, but that could be a waste of time you could have been spending on finding ways to make this shift.”

According to van den Beukel, it is a fact that the circular economy is coming, as we move away from the linear version that went back to the first industrial revolution. “You have to decide if you want to have a strategy which prepares for that.”

He adds that in 2050, the chemical industry will inevitably be mainly based on bio-based feedstocks. That is only 32 years away, which is relatively soon in terms of chemical industry investment cycles.

Another driver is technology, as developments in 
biochemistry and biotechnology make renewable-based chemical production more viable. The biochemicals and polymers market is tiny and underfunded compared with the mainstream but advancing quickly.

INDUSTRY RESPONSE MUTED

Trade group PlasticsEurope has implemented a plastics recycling target, but not one on use of alternative feedstocks, though it aims to conduct a study on this by 2019. In its 2017 Sustainability Report, EU chemicals trade association Cefic acknowledges the growth of alternative feedstocks and circular economy, citing the need for “large-scale investment in [research and development] and conversion of assets.”

Van den Beukel welcomes the positive response of PlasticsEurope to the circular economy concept. “That’s good news – the move to a circular economy is inevitable so industry is right to embrace this. It’s also a huge opportunity as there is no need to continue producing the same way we have been for the last 20 years.”

WINNERS AND LOSERS

Chemical companies that can react quickly, adjust business strategies and cooperate with partners up and down supply chains will emerge as the winners. Creating a level playing field is also important and governments can help by making sure all producers face the same challenges.

On the global scale, regulators in China and many other countries – with the exception of the US – are moving in the same direction as Europe. “The energy transition is already happening. If you understand and react to the trends fast enough you can cope. I’m optimistic that a flat global playing field will allow the chemical industry to adapt without harming its competitiveness,” says van den Beukel.

All the big chemical companies are investigating the circular economy and many are making supply chain or technology acquisitions. The leading players are all aware of the shift to bio-based and are taking this seriously. There is a need to speed up, however.

Solvay, for example, is a global partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which publishes influential reports on the circular economy,

There is currently a lot of confusion about the difference between bio-based, biodegradable and recyclable packaging. What determines recyclability is not the feedstock but the packaging design. So chemical companies will need to work with packaging groups to develop products that are more recyclable.

Crisp packets are a good example. They are currently a plastic-coated, aluminium mix and have to be thrown into residual waste. The first movers to produce a high quality crisp bag that is recyclable will be a winner, says van den Beukel.

PARTNERSHIPS ARE KEY

According to Tom Beagant, director at PWC’s climate change and sustainability team, vertical integration along value chains is an option but more important are partnerships. “Many of these global challenges can’t be solved by one actor in a value chain alone. Chemical companies need to start investing in R&D now and develop partnerships.”

He says the EU’s circular economy strategy is already sending signals to industry. Fast Moving Consumer Goods companies will be looking to drive that change too. Even without regulation this change is coming.

By Will Beacham