LONDON (ICIS)--The polymers industry in Europe already offers recyclable materials but ambitious recycling targets may be unachievable unless public and private sectors set up a join approach and greatly increase funding, according to a director at European polymers major INEOS.
Tom Crotty added that while recycling targets coming from the EU show healthy ambition, they may be unachievable.
The EU published on 16 January its plastics packaging targets, requiring that 100% of plastics packaging be recyclable by 2030, aiming for 55% of them to be actually recycled.
The INEOS executive added that a disparity of approaches to recycling across the EU only makes matters more complicated, and called for a “joined approach” so both the public and the private sectors can pull in the same direction.
Moreover, asked whether companies like INEOS may run out of business if a true ‘circular economy’ was in place, where everything is reused, Crotty emphatically argued that polymers producers would be part of the solution, rather than an extinct part of the industry.
“We, as an industry, have gone to the EU with a voluntary commitment to say that we offer recyclable polymers [and stated] that by 2030 we will work with the rest of the downstream industry to try and achieve the EU target. Whether it is feasible to achieve in that time frame or not, I don’t know,” he said.
“The wording the EU uses is ‘potential for recyclability', rather than actual recyclability. I think by 2030 it would be possible to get to 60% of actual reuse and recycling of all plastic packaging, but I think it will take longer to get to 100% [recycled].”
Crotty said that in order to achieve ambitious targets, all participants in the plastics packaging industry should be involved so true ‘eco-design’ can be produced, and stressed how waste collection and separation is still a bit issue to solve in most European countries.
“The UK is probably one of the worst countries [for recycling]… The more than 300 local authortiies in the country, for instance, have virtually more than 300 systems for collection,” he said.
The INEOS executive went on to say that all virgin polymers produced in Europe are recyclable, but added the caveat that many of the end products they are included in make recycling difficult.
However, his reasoning may have sounded like a way to put the blame on other participants in the plastics packaging industry, away from the actual producers of the materials.
“Not at all. We are not putting the blame on anybody, but the problem we have is that we haven’t had a joined up approach to this problem so far, and that is very much required. For instance, some pieces of packaging have four different polymers in it. Can we redesign that with one single polymer? With current polymers chemistry, there are huge capabilities you can adopt for a single polymer,” said Crotty.
“But that would require two things: that the polymers chemists work with packaging designers and the packaging specifiers to achieve that outcome. We know we have to be part of that solution, we know we have to continue developing polymers grades that improves [the material's] recyclability.”
A lot of money will need to be invested to achieve a new approach to production and design of packaging products containing polymers, Crotty said, but he stressed that producers are seeing this as an opportunity rather than a threat.
INEOS had not responded at the time of writing to a request for the latest financial figures for expenditure in research and development (R&D).
Privately-owned INEOS' annual report for 2016 stated that its expenditure in research was included in its 'Administrative expenses before exceptional items', which totalled during that year €372m, up 12% year on year, but did not provide specific figures for R&D.
However, its workforce within that department fell slightly, from 332 employees in 2015 to 305 in 2016. Moreover, the figure has sharply come down from 2014, when that department employed 444 people, according to the annual report.
Crotty said the polymers industry has the challenge to produce different advanced polymers which ultimately would make eco-design possible. Equally, he admitted demand for virgin polymers in the next decades is set to decrease as more materials are recycled.
“But the Holy Grail for us here is clearly that every time a polymer molecule goes into the recycling chain, it degrades. If we can develop the chemistry to improve recycled polymers’ properties, that would be another opportunity for us,” said Crotty, pictured.
He agreed with the suggestion that the EU is being probably too ambitious on its recycling targets, conceding that is the “natural tendency” for regulators because they want to speed up change among consumers and industry.
“However, we have a lot of work to do, and a lot of money needs to be invested, both privately and publicly, to make this happen. It’s about joined thinking – it requires an integrated approach if we are really serious about addressing and solving the problem,” he said.
ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: FEEDSTOCKS
Many sources in the chemical industry in Europe have however expressed doubts that a true circular economy would be feasible anytime soon, as long as producers of all sort of materials continue using crude oil or natural gas as their main feedstocks.
Crotty conceded that at this moment in time it would actually be possible to produce polymers from biofeedstocks like bioethanol, but admitted that the high costs of doing so are stopping producers from expanding production with cleaner feedstocks.
INEOS has looked into producing polymers from biofeedstocks, but has not done any inroads in that sector yet, he conceded.
“It all comes down to economics. We are not investing today... we have looked at that and continue to look at the options, but we are yet to find a process that works and is economic. We actually don’t care what our feedstocks are – crude oil, gas, sugar cane or used plastics – because ultimately we’ll do the conversion to make them into useful materials: that’s our job,” said Crotty.
“That’s why we will not go out of business – we’ll change the business model. You can make plastics out of biofeedstocks, we could do it as soon as tomorrow: we could take bioethanol from sugar cane and convert it into ethylene and polymerise into polyethylene [PE].
"We have looked at that, as well as many other companies, but the problem is that it costs more than doing it from oil and gas, and so far the wider, general industry is not prepared to pay for that. It is not a technical issue, but rather an economic one.”
A bigger challenge, the INEOS executive said, will be how to use recycled feedstocks in the production of materials, arguing that chemistry has not come up yet with the solution to make that work.
The UK's The Independent newspaper published a report in early 2017 about how the British Plastics Federation (BPF) had lobbied the government at the time to lower recycling targets.
Crotty denied that the lobbying had anything to do with an industry which potentially could take recycling as a threat, but argued that the lobbying had more to do with “unachievable” targets which would have “put the problem” onto the plastics industry.
“The issue at the time was that we were being told ‘You have to achieve these targets, and if you don’t we’ll start charging you as an industry’,” he said.
“We didn’t have any control on those targets, because they relied on the waste collection systems to develop, and that is not on our control. That’s why we lobbied. We couldn’t be penalised for something that is not in our control, and that’s why the targets [for recycling] were changed. “
Pictures sources: Eye Ubiquitous/REX/Shutterstock and Twitter
Interview article by Jonathan Lopez