Innovation is key to meeting circular economy goals
The industry is already engaging positively with the issues arising from the move to a circular economy
Political and societal pressures are mounting for the creation of a circular economy whereby materials used in manufactured goods are recovered and reused rather than being simply disposed of at the end of their useful life.
The concept has huge implications for the chemical and especially the plastics industries, with the focus being most advanced at the moment on packaging. With most packaging being single-use, there is pressure to reduce and redesign packaging, so that less waste is created for landfill and incineration.
The industry is already engaging positively with the issues arising from the move to a circular economy.
Daniele Ferrari, President of PlasticsEurope and CEO of Italy’s Polimeri Europa, believes the industry “must prove our leadership in sustainability and innovation with concrete, successful projects.” He notes that Europe is moving towards a more circular economy and that this trend could gradually spread to other regions, as happened with climate change.
“The chemical industry has all the means to drive this change and reaffirm itself as the leader in innovative, sustainable solutions,” he says. The industry has the potential to be “the front-runner of Europe’s future greener economy and the sector that will enable circularity on a global scale.”
LyondellBasell’s Jim Seward, speaking as the Chair of the World Plastics Council (WPC), adds that as an industry, “We believe that plastics are far too valuable to throw away and, in particular, they simply should not end up in our oceans. Starting from that position, the chemical and plastics industries have an important role to play in solving the current plastic waste issues.”
“Whether through product design, to facilitate mechanical recycling, or through process innovation to drive chemical or molecular recycling, the industry must lead in creating new solutions to the issue.”
He argues that significant improvement in waste management infrastructure and practice is critical, in particular in certain Asian countries.
“We need to both advocate for action and also be part of the solution as to how that can happen. Innovation is key. Whether that be in product design, to facilitate mechanical recycling, or through process innovation to drive chemical or molecular recycling, the industry must lead in creating new solutions to the issue.”
Ferrari is of the same opinion. He says that, “Sustainability is already a core element of our industry’s business strategy, allowing greater efficiency and lower environmental impacts. The circular economy momentum is therefore a great opportunity to draw attention to our successes in terms of R&D, thus contributing to our reputation worldwide.”
But, he says, no benefit comes without challenges. “Petrochemical companies, especially the plastics industry in Europe, are under great pressure by decision-makers and public opinion to prove their commitment in favor of greater circularity.
Project momentum building
“To give an example: European policymakers are today discussing bans, reduction targets and other extremely impactful measures against a number of plastic products. The plastics industry is already addressing this new challenge. Today, a multitude of existing ‘circular projects’ has the chance to gain momentum and many new initiatives are under development in response to Europe’s call.”
Versalis (part of Italy’s Eni) is working closely with other companies to foster the uptake of chemical recycling technologies. Also, along with other members of PlasticsEurope it has this year adopted “Plastics 2030”, the sector’s commitment to increase circularity and resource efficiency.
This, says Ferrari, is a very ambitious initiative aimed at ensuring high rates of re-use and recycling: 60% for plastics packaging by 2030, with the ambition to achieve a goal of 100% re-use, recycling and/or recovery of all plastics packaging in the EU28, Norway and Switzerland by 2040.
“The circular economy is a great opportunity and the chemical industry is in the best position to enable Europe’s transition, with the contribution of all stakeholders and sectors.
“Everyone has to play a role in this transition: institutions, industry and consumers. And the latter are particularly important in pursuing Europe’s goals, as changing our economy entails a new social consumption mindset.”
From his global perspective, Seward says he sees the circular economy spreading globally. Thinking at WPC starts from the belief that plastic waste is not waste but should be viewed as a feedstock or raw material for another activity. “This is an issue which is solvable and we should not leave it for future generations to tackle.”
“All of us should be concerned with resource efficiency given the finite resources we have as a planet, and due to their inherent recyclability and low carbon footprint plastics are well placed to play a positive contribution.”
Plastics play a vital role in addressing a number of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. “Their low carbon footprint, versatility and ability to keep food and drink safer and fresher for longer all deliver long term benefits to society.
“I believe all of us should be concerned with resource efficiency given the finite resources we have as a planet, and again, plastics are well placed due to their inherent recyclability and low carbon footprint to play a positive contribution.”
WPC is active on a number of levels, he adds. “Through communication and advocacy, we bring together our industry and value chain and drive a solution-minded approach to addressing the challenges we face. We support action and research efforts, through partnerships with NGOs and other organizations.”
Ferrari also believes that the circular economy is becoming more and more central to the international debate. Although many countries are lagging behind, or are fragmented in their policies, the global community is being called upon to undertake concrete actions to face some of the world’s most radical challenges.
New mindset required
“The objectives of these actions are crystal clear, while the process to achieve them is complex, long-lasting demanding and most importantly binding,” he notes. “They require a new mindset in industry as well as at the social and consumer level.”
The theory behind the circular economy model is widely known. “Now is the time to move to practice,” he adds. “Europe is determined to play a leading role in the implementation of this new model and has engaged as a forerunner.
“Its strategies on the matter aim at being beneficial for the EU citizens and businesses (new jobs, welfare and a healthier environment), and effective for the planet. At the basis of these ambitious targets, there is the need to have an international level playing field.”
Ferrari notes that on the issue of ocean plastics waste, today consumers are overloaded with statistics. Magazines, clean up initiatives, documentaries, social media, TV, radio, etc, all warn of the danger the world faces.
Says Ferrari: “It is no longer acceptable that waste ends up in the sea just because we suffer a lack of public awareness or poor waste management. Some 88-95% of plastics in the seas comes from 10 rivers, none of which is European. Marine litter is a global problem.
“In this field, the plastics industry is engaged in purposeful, collaborative work to help end ocean pollution. We believe in integrated approaches for managing plastics resources that allow us to enjoy their benefits, without trashing our oceans.
The plastics industry is also doing its part through Operation Clean Sweep, a voluntary international program, which identifies guidelines for containing the dispersion of plastic pellets into the environment at each stage along the value chain.
But Ferrari believes implementation of a truly circular economy calls for a radical transformation and as such, poses challenges, for example, in the regulatory field or in the technological one.
“I think that it is a unique opportunity to renovate the chemical sector, through the development of new business models able to overcome these challenges and to exploit the potential of a more efficient and sustainable economy. This could ensure a restored sector reputation in terms of sustainability and an improved competitiveness for the whole sector.”
“I believe all of us should be concerned with resource efficiency given the finite resources we have as a planet”
Chair, World Plastics Council
“The circular economy… is a great opportunity to draw attention to our successes in terms of R&D, thus contributing to our reputation worldwide”