Transitioning to a New Plastics Economy
Plastics have come to be indispensible materials that deliver great value and performance in the several applications they serve. While plastics, in general, and plastics packaging, in particular, are an integral part of the global economy and deliver many benefits, their archetypically linear, take-make-dispose value chains entail significant economic and environmental drawbacks.
While these negatives have been known for some time, it is only in the past few years that the true extent has become clear. We now know, more than 40 years after the launch of the first universal recycling symbol, that only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling globally. More importantly, each year, $80-120 billion worth of plastic packaging material value is lost to the economy. Much of this ends up in landfills where, given their recalcitrant nature, they will persist for hundreds of years. A significant quantity also ends up in water bodies and eventually makes its ways to the seas. Projections that, in a business-as-usual scenario, the oceans could contain more plastics than fish (by weight) by 2050 have stunned the public; images of islands of plastic waste floating in the middle of otherwise pristine oceans have enraged environmentalists and prodded governments to seek adequate responses from all stakeholders.
In India several States, including Maharashtra, have rolled out harsh measures, including outright bans on certain plastic articles, in a desperate attempt to curb rampant littering, whose impacts go beyond just spoiling the aesthetics of our neighbourhoods. Thin-walled plastic bags, indiscriminately disposed, clog sewers leading to flooding and choke animals to death. Bans on carry-bags made out of plastic film less than 50 microns thick have been in place for some time now, but have been largely ineffective.
The recent move by the Maharashtra government goes far beyond – all carry bags have been banned, as have foamed polystyrene containers, and several other goods. Charges have been mandated for certain plastic containers – such as PET bottles – with refunds made on their return. Some exceptions have been made, such as use of plastic films for milk packaging – a recognition that the material is indeed the best packaging option for this every day need.
Fundamental redesign and innovation needed
According to a report – The new plastics economy: Rethinking the future of plastics – launched at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in 2016 – without fundamental redesign and innovation, about 30% of plastic packaging will never be reused or recycled. These packaging are, by their very design, destined for landfill, incineration or energy recovery, and are often likely to leak into the environment after a short single use. The problem is particularly worse in the emerging economies where much of the incremental growth in plastics packaging is happening.
A good example of the problem is the ubiquitous plastic sachet used to package all sorts of goods – detergents, personal care products, cooking oil, to name a few. While the availability of these small pack sizes has opened up markets for these products, especially amongst the lower economic strata, they pose an immense environmental challenge due their leakage into the environment. What is clearly needed here is material innovation in recyclable or compostable alternatives to the currently unrecyclable multi-material applications.
At a more general level, there is a need for fundamental redesign of packaging concepts and delivery mechanisms. For some segments, this means reinvention from scratch; for others, it means scaling existing solutions or accelerating progress made so far. Bans are an option, but should be the last one.
Reuse – economically attractive for 20% of packaging
For at least 20% of plastic packaging used globally, reuse is an economically attractive opportunity. New models that effectively replace single-use packaging with reusable alternatives are already being demonstrated in the cleaning- and personal-care markets by only shipping active ingredients in combination with reusable dispensers. Product innovation – such as concentrated liquid detergents – are reducing pack sizes, as well.
Several large FMCG companies are also taking up the challenge of bringing back into their factories and those of their partners as much of used plastics as they put out in the first place – in a sort of mass balance exercise.
With concerted efforts on design and after-use systems, recycling could be economically attractive for the remaining 50% of plastic packaging. Recycling and reusing of thermoplastics is very much feasible even with current technologies. Even halogenated polymers, such as polyvinyl chloride, can be handled.
Recycling without downgrading
Recycle and reuse has more often than not meant a downgrading of polymer properties, relegating their use to less discerning applications. Food grade polymers, for example, could seldom be recycled to again serve similar use. But that is changing thanks to innovative research. There is today a lot of attention on the numerous additives used in plastics and how they withstand the harsh conditions of temperature during recycling. Speciality chemical companies are also developing performance chemicals that enable recycled resins to perform just as affectively as virgin ones.
Polyolefins – the largest category of products – are mostly pure hydrocarbons (barring the additives and fillers used). From an elemental perspective they are no different from crude oil and can be used for generating energy in well-designed plants, with negligible environmental impact. But recycling plastics to recover their energy value should be the last resort. From a value retention perspective and from an environmental one, a better option could be sequestering them into articles of long-term use. There have, for example, been several initiatives to use waste thermoplastics and even waste tyres for road laying by incorporating them in a ground state into hot bitumen. Trials have shown that roads containing such polymers last longer and provide better grip for vehicles.
It would be naïve to believe that this alone would solve the plastics waste problem, but recycled plastics can serve several other uses as well.
Collective & collection efforts needed
The plastics sector is a young industry overall. Plastics only became widespread in the 1950s, and reutilisation strategies for waste plastics were only introduced in 1990s, yet both the collection systems and technical feasibility have developed enormously in the intervening period. It can be safely assumed that recycling rates for all plastics will continue to rise in the years to come, as there is strong demand for recyclate for both environmental and economic reasons.
But the sedate pace of progress seen in the past may not be enough for the future. It is clear that the topic of plastics is coming to a head. The key question is, will societies gradually reject the material due to its negative effects and forgo its many benefits, or will they carve out a future for it characterised by innovation, redesign and harmonisation, based on circular economy principles? The answer will in large measure be determined by the initiatives taken collectively by all stakeholders in the industry.
Design of materials, packaging formats and delivery models will be essential to mobilise the transition towards a New Plastics Economy, and the entire plastic packaging value chain – from packaging designers at the beginning of the chain to recyclers at the end – will need to be involved. Another critical short-term action needed, given the high levels of leakage into the natural environment, is to deploy basic collection and management infrastructure.
Sourcing virgin feedstocks from renewable sources would also accelerate the transition to the New Plastics Economy by helping decouple plastics from fossil feedstocks.