Plastics producers have long urged recycling over replacement when it comes to government regulation debates related to waste. Considering the key role that plastics played in the response to the coronavirus pandemic, they may have a point.
The advent of COVID-19 has only underlined long-held industry positions on reliability, cost and scale advantages of single-use plastics. From North America to Europe, plastic plants that are key to delivering sterile medical gear, personal protection equipment, or packaging that prevents food spoilage have been deemed critical infrastructure.
In short, plastic saves lives. But the pollution remains a problem.
The pollution problem
The rapidly increasing global population has taken to plastics as an affordable flexible multi-use material. However, the twin increase in population and plastics use has outpaced global disposal and recycling capacities. Governments around the world are battling rising volumes of plastic litter, while microplastics and pellets are killing marine life. These efforts have resulted in bans on several different types of single-use plastics, as well as increased regulation and discussions of alternative materials.
But the plastics industry cautions against overreliance on substitute materials – including biomaterials, glass and aluminum – which may create more problems than they solve.
“Plastic brings many benefits but also presents obvious challenges which we are focusing on addressing,” Virginia Janssens, managing director at PlasticsEurope said in a recent Forbes interview. “Data continually shows that plastics can provide the lowest carbon emissions of any material, particularly when recycled. Substitution could have unintended consequences whether it be the impact of resource extraction or tree felling, or increased carbon emissions from transporting goods.”
PlasticsEurope focuses on addressing challenges around waste and marine litter by ensuring that no plastic waste is lost to the environment and that plastic plays a part in a low-carbon circular economy, Janssens said.
The push for replacement materials assumes that littering will continue to be a problem and seeks to respond by using different, less harmful materials. And in some niches, this might be the right call. However, there are many problems with this approach. For one, it passively encourages litter. Secondly, it assumes that customers will accept more expensive substitute products. And finally, it directs resources and time away from the most effective response: collection and recycling.
Plastics in the pandemic
In an important boost to the industry, plastics producers have played a critical role in the COVID-19 response. Companies such as Germany’s BASF and US-based Dow Chemicals kept operating throughout the pandemic and shifted output to help response efforts, citing production of protective equipment and sanitisers.
Moscow-based petrochemicals producer Sibur moved workers to live-in shifts at plants, with increased pay to ensure worker safety and keep critical operations running. While second-quarter results have been challenging for all plastics producers, increased demand for products used in packaging, consumer goods and medical applications supported sales, Sibur said in a presentation earlier this month.
Sibur Executive Director Sergey Komyshan advocated using the industry’s strength in chemistry instead of simple restrictions and bans in a call with media following results.
“Environmental considerations will keep pushing both stakeholders, as well as the industry, towards finding more practical and good solutions,” Komyshan said. Investments should focus on “finding the right technologies for secondary material production for waste recycling,” he said.
Sibur is pushing ahead with plans for one of the world’s largest new petrochemicals projects in Amur in the Russian Far East, laying the first piles for the plant’s foundation August 18. The Amur Gas Chemical Complex is scheduled to start production in 2024–2025. With the Amur project, Sibur aims to capitalise on the fast-growing polymer sector by producing up to 2.3 million tonnes of polyethylene and 400,000 tonnes of polypropylene per year. At the same time, Russia itself is ramping up recycling efforts.
Operating critical infrastructure is imperative during the response to the COVID-19 emergency for public health and safety, the German company BASF said. The chemical industry supplies goods that are essential to supporting the needs of the public, according to BASF. At the same time the company is committed to greater recycling and fighting global plastics pollution with organizations like the Alliance To End Plastic Waste.
Recycling as the solution
PlasticsEurope underscored the lessons about the possibilities of plastic that emerged during the pandemic experience.
This is “an opportunity for people to understand the benefits and the value of plastics, while simultaneously showing that we are willing to deal with waste issues and improve recycling rates,” PlasticsEurope’s David Carroll said in an interview.
Plastic litter remains an immediate issue requiring resolution. That remains the case, independent of its critical role in medicine and packaging for instance.
At the moment, the most significant tool in hand to battle litter or leakage in waste systems is the real value which the plastics material holds itself. Focusing efforts here will not shift waste impact to other sectors. It will reduce impact. The ability to efficiently collect and sort waste will give that value scale and will prompt producers to increase yields of recoverable material from waste.
Changing some patterns of plastics usage will become a niche part of the waste solution, for sure. But changing patterns in plastics disposal and recovery will be the main solution.