Commentary: Chemicals go circular

14 June 2018 23:24 Source:ICIS Chemical Business

The circular economy just got another big push from the US – the world’s fastest growing country for new plastics volumes.

Driven by increasing consumer awareness about plastic waste, especially in the oceans, the EU kicked off the circular economy discussion in earnest in January with a framework to achieve 100% of all plastics packaging in the EU either reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective manner by 2030.

But it is critical the US gets on board, as it is the country most aggressively boosting plastics capacity on the back of advantaged shale gas.

The awareness of marine plastic waste has only grown with the publication of a series of graphic images along with multiple articles on the effects of plastics pollution on marine wildlife by National Geographic magazine, at least one copy of which appeared at the American Chemistry Council (ACC) annual meeting in Colorado Springs in early June.

AHMED JALLANZO/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

Awareness on marine plastic waste is growing

The impact of these types of photos was acknowledged by Jerry MacCleary, CEO of Covestro LLC, who is also chairman of the executive committee of the ACC board of directors.

At the meeting, the ACC laid out its commitment to reducing plastic waste with its own circular economy goals to achieve 100% of plastics packaging being recyclable or recoverable by 2030, and 100% of plastics packaging actually reused, recycled or recovered by 2040.

Plastics waste was at the top of the agenda at the ACC press briefing at the annual meeting, with LyondellBasell CEO Bob Patel and Chemours CEO Mark Vergnano, along with ACC CEO Cal Dooley advocating for real commitment by its members and developing concrete solutions.

Patel is also chairman of the board of the ACC, and Vergnano vice chairman.

This move by the leading US chemical trade group requires leadership and dedication. Critically, after the ACC annual meeting, the association announced that Dooley has agreed to delay his retirement and extend his tenure as CEO through 2019 instead of retiring at the end of 2018.

“The global chemicals and plastics industry has an imperative to fight the spread of mismanaged plastic waste that is increasingly littering our rivers, oceans and landscapes,” said Dooley.

He called ending plastic waste “an issue of personal, as well as professional interest”, and called for “swift and aggressive actions to make the most of all resources and leverage technology to dramatically increase rates of reuse, recycling and recovery of all plastic products.”

Actual plastic resin producers must get involved, even if they cannot directly control the streams of plastic waste going into the oceans, which are coming predominantly from Asia. Any positive actions they can take should be explored and then executed, if feasible. Doing nothing is not a choice.

The most effective solutions will ultimately come down to collection and recycling – two competencies the developing world lacks at the moment.

The collection should ideally be done on land before the waste hits the waterways, but there are also technologies being developed to collect plastic waste from the sea for recycling.

Collection is not a core competency of plastic resin producers either, and they are not likely to delve into this business in a big way. However, they can partner with waste management companies – firms that are experts in collection.

LyondellBasell in March invested in Netherlands-based plastics recycling company Quality Circular Polymers (QCP) in a joint venture with SUEZ, where SUEZ will seek to improve waste collection for feedstock at QCP to produce virgin quality polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP).

While operations will initially be focused in the Netherlands and Germany, where recycling awareness and capabilities are high, LyondellBasell aims to replicate the technology and operations elsewhere over time.

Producers should make sure they have an actual stake in recycled plastics, said Paul Bjacek, principal director at Accenture, at the ACC meeting. He pointed out that by 2040, around 275m tonnes/year, or almost a third of global plastics supply, will be “new” recycled material representing “lost conventional capacity”.

It is going to be a long journey to a plastics circular economy and the chemical industry is in the very early stages. But now the wheels are turning.

Additional reporting by Al Greenwood

By Joseph Chang