Polymer industry needs to seize the moment

Author Will Collins, Recycled Polymers Editor

An overarching message from the marine litter-themed Polytalk 2018 conference was a plea for the plastics industry to “seize the moment” and harness the new public enthusiasm to tackle plastic waste.

The hope is that plastic’s image problem, which World Plastic Council chairman Jim Seward described to Argus as “the big existential threat” to the industry going forward, can be a catalyst that drives the industry towards its own sustainability targets.

But the industry has to strike a balance between satisfying the public clamour for immediate action, and ensuring that the steps taken to improve sustainability are meaningful.

At the heart of the problem is the juxtaposition between plastic’s image as an environmental menace and its ubiquity in industries like packaging, because it is, in many cases, simply the best material for the job.

Among the advantages are barrier properties that extend the life of food and drinks, its lightness compared with other materials that reduces the environmental cost of transporting packaged goods, and an extreme versatility that is a boon for designers.

But while Polytalk revealed uncertainties about how the environmental impacts can best be measured, there was complete agreement that marine litter and — more widely — plastic waste are problems that have to be solved. As PlasticsEurope director Karl-H Foerster told Argus, the industry is “damn serious” about tackling the problems.

At the conference, many industry and non-industry figures warned that bans on plastic products like drinking straws or balloon holders — as mooted in a leaked EU document the following week — will not drive wider sustainability in the plastics industry.

Most participants agreed that an effective solution should involve collaboration along the entire supply chain, rather than legislation targeted at individual areas. This would mean encouraging developers and brand owners to work with recyclers to consider packaging’s recyclability in the design phase, and improve and increase sorting and recycling capacity, so producers of plastic products receive plastic materials with which they can work.

Michael Scriba, chief executive of German recycler mtm Plastics, told Argus that designers should do more to ensure that recyclability is a key consideration for their packaging products and avoid making plastic packaging that includes additives or colourants that can make the recycling process more complicated.

There are already signs of improvement. Scriba told Argus that he has seen more investment in plastic waste sorting capacity — a vital step towards ensuring that recyclers have access to the best possible input materials. This is partly driven by higher government recycling targets (although he also identified the loss of China as an outlet for European waste plastic as a big factor).

Mtm was bought by Austrian polymer producer Borealis in 2016, which Scriba says symbolises a “change in the mindset” in the plastics industry that previously thought it “was on the safe side with life-cycle analysis and material efficiency”.

“All of a sudden, they came under pressure because of the rising awareness of the marine litter issue and the decrease of image that went along with it”, he said.

Communication may be the biggest hurdle to overcome. Public pressure will inevitably increase if the problems are not tackled. If the industry wants to seize its moment to act, educating the public that complex issues require complex solutions will be key.