Analysis: Plastic's waste issue response on show at K 2019

Author Will Collins, Associate Editor

The environmental impact of plastic waste is something that the industry is not ignoring, with the force of public opinion and consumer avoidance of plastics piling pressure on participants to address what happens to plastic products once they have been used.

This pressure was evident from the exhibits on display at this week’s K 2019 trade show in Dusseldorf. A large number of exhibitors – particularly large plastic manufacturers – led with recycled or “green” products, to advertise their sustainability credentials. But the exhibition also highlighted the need to move fast to stop the plastic waste issue from worsening, which could further damage its reputation and overshadow its many positive features.

Every major producer was demonstrating their green and sustainability credentials, from MOL Group including a “green corner” at its booth, showcasing its activities such as the acquisition of recycled plastic compounder Aurora in April, to LyondellBasell presenting samples of a suitcase made from recycled plastic in partnership with luggage manufacturer Samsonite.

There were also a number of promotions in the chemical recycling sphere, including from Braskem, which announced that it had run successful initial trials of pyrolysis oil – derived from plastic waste feedstock – on one of its Brazilian crackers. Outside of polyolefins, polystyrene (PS) producer Trinseo outlined a plan to offer an average of 30pc recycled content to all of its PS packaging customers in Europe by 2025. The PS industry is on a mission to shake its reputation as less recyclable than other polymers, as evidenced by a panel discussion from association Styrenics Circular Solutions on PS chemical recycling technologies.

And it was not all about the big boys. France-based polymers distributor Emeraude, for example, demonstrated a small-scale pyrolysis unit for turning waste plastics into diesel fuel for power generation in emerging countries where waste collection systems are limited or non-existent.

CO2 efficiency was also on the agenda. For example, Borealis announced an agreement to manufacture “green” polypropylene from propane produced by Neste, based on waste oils, and European polyvinyl chloride (PVC) manufacturer Inovyn unveiled a range of PVC manufactured from biomass-based ethylene. The PVC industry has blazed a trail in terms of focus on recycling after falling foul of public opinion in the early 2000s, and Inovyn says that the substitution of fossil feedstock enables a 90pc greenhouse gas saving compared with conventionally produced PVC. 

These renewable-feedstock initiatives, while not directly targeted towards tackling plastic waste, show that the industry has not forgotten about the importance of carbon efficiency. The “green” plastic products are also seen as important contributors to repairing plastic’s poor environmental reputation and curtailing consumer avoidance of plastic products.

Neither has the sustainability drive stopped with K: just this week Neste and recycler Remondis have announced that they are teaming up on a chemical recycling project, and Total and BP have announced plans to expand recycling.

But the show, which included around 3,300 exhibitors – mostly raw material and machinery suppliers to the plastic industry – and expected over 200,000 visitors, also showed the enormous size and diversity of the plastic industry, and the extent to which it is interwoven into everyday life. It could be seen as a warning of how serious the environmental issue of plastic waste could become if solutions are not quickly accelerated, but also the scale changes that society would need to make if it really does reject plastics in all forms.

Global population growth and increasing urbanisation are expected to maintain significant demand expansion for virgin plastics in the coming years. Borealis chief executive Alfred Stern pointed out to Argus that plastic will be required to meet rising need for transportation, water access and packaging to transport food to urban areas. This is expected to continue even if some of the growth is lost because use of recycled plastic increases.

Meanwhile, according to figures released at K 2019 by PlasticsEurope, the EU-28 still recycles less than one third of its plastic waste and sends a quarter to landfill. This was despite the data suggesting that it increased the amount of plastic that it recycled domestically by around 2.3mn t/yr between 2016 and 2018. Recycling rates in other regions are typically thought to be lower than in Europe, albeit with some exceptions – particularly certain Asian countries – while growth rates for plastic waste production are far larger in many cases.

It is clear that the industry will need to scale up the recycling solutions on show at K very quickly – and on a global scale – to stop the impact of plastic waste on the environment from worsening as demand grows. Failure to effectively address this issue could prove catastrophic for the industry, as well as for society as a whole.

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