The future of plastic
Plastic is a fantastic material. It is versatile and valuable – critical to modern society across nearly every industry. Plastic can also act as a carbon-combatting material, helping to keep our cars light and our food fresh. The problem arises when the material reaches the end of its lifecycle, and its greatest characteristics such as durability and low cost become its biggest downfall.
Our vision for a circular plastic economy
In 2019, nearly 370 million tonnes of plastic were produced globally. A study by McKinsey & Company found that just 16% was collected for recycling and just 12% actually recycled. The rest was either incinerated, landfilled or simply lost to the environment. A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation warns that by 2050 there will be more waste plastic in the ocean than fish.
Avoiding the use of plastic altogether will be difficult. Replacing plastic with alternate materials will have trade-offs in terms of cost or climate impact. However, if we can find a solution for plastic waste, we can continue to reap the benefits that plastic has to offer.
1. Plastics Europe. (2020) ‘Plastics – The Facts 2020’. Available at: plasticseurope.org/knowledge-hub/plastics-the-facts-2020/
2. McKinsey & Company. (2018). ‘How plastics waste recycling could transform the chemical industry’. Available at: mckinsey.com/industries/chemicals/our-insights/how-plastics-waste-recycling-could-transform-the-chemical-industry
3. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2016). ‘The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics’. Available at: ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/the-new-plastics-economy-rethinking-the-future-of-plastics
Source: McKinsey & Company. (2018). ‘How plastics waste recycling could transform the chemical industry’. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/chemicals/our-insights/how-plastics-waste-recycling-could-transform-the-chemical-industry
Complementing the existing system
The vast majority of recycled plastic is processed using mechanical recycling. This process turns plastic into new material without significantly changing its chemical structure. Mechanical recycling is energy efficient and widely available, but it is not a complete solution. Only certain types of plastic can be recycled this way, and the resulting products are of a lower quality and cannot be used for certain applications such as food contact.
For example, the plastic from recycled beverage bottles cannot be used to make new beverage bottles due to degradation of the plastic during the recycling process. Plastic waste that can’t be recycled mechanically is sent to landfill or incineration at a cost.
Feedstock recycling can help bridge the recycling capacity gap by offering to recycle plastic that is currently unrecyclable. This process produces virgin-quality plastics that can be recycled continuously, allowing retailers to access high-quality recycled plastic. By introducing feedstock recycling into the waste industry, mechanical recyclers can become more effective and profitable, with access to new products and revenue streams and the removed cost of disposal.
In this way, feedstock recycling complements the existing recycling infrastructure to boost overall recycling rates. Under this new system, plastic production can eventually be decoupled from fossil fuels, driving the shift towards a circular plastic economy.
The plastics problem is too big for anyone to solve alone. The transition to a circular economy requires a systemic shift involving everyone in the plastics value chain. We are doing our part by helping to bridge the gap between waste management and the petrochemical industry.
We work with local authorities and leading brands to help them achieve more circular supply chains. Collaboration within the plastics industry is key to developing innovative recycling solutions. We rely on industry partners and associations to help us reach our goals while accelerating the transition to a circular economy.
We are also proud to be a signatory of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative, joining the voices of petrochemical companies, brand owners, retailers and waste managers to change the way plastic is managed across its lifecycle and end plastic waste.
‘Collaboration within the plastics industry is key
to developing innovative recycling systems.’