MOSCOW (MRC) -- Although the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the unique value of plastics, plastic waste remains an increasingly urgent problem whose solution will require extensive collaboration throughout the value chain, reported Chemweek with reference to industry representatives' statement last Thursday during the IHS Markit PEPP 2020 Online: Annual Polyethylene-Polypropylene Chain Global Technology & Business Forum.
"The value proposition for plastic materials has been reemphasized in the consumer base," said Venetia Spencer, secretary general of the Polyolefin Circular Economy Platform (PCEP). "I think that people recognize the value of the product. They recognize the importance of food safety, of the application of plastics in personal protective equipment (PPE) and hygiene and medical applications. At the same time, the issue on end-of-use is still there."
Indeed, the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, said Justin Wood, vice president/strategic partnerships at The Alliance to End Plastic Waste. "Coronavirus is a major health crisis, and clearly it's also a major economic crisis, but it's also very much an environmental crisis, and particularly in the context of plastic," he observed. "If you look at the consumption of plastic globally, it is increasing the use of single-use plastic in many, many cases."
These include not only PPE for healthcare workers, but also home delivery of food and other products that consumers historically purchased in stores.
"So we've seen dramatic increase in many uses of plastic. But we've also at the same time seen collapsing management of the waste that is produced from all of that. In many cases, the materials recovery facilities and so on that process this waste plastic have been shuttered temporarily in name of social distancing. Equally, people have been much more reluctant to handle plastic waste from other people given scares around the virus, so this situation is really a double whammy, in the sense that you see soaring use of single-use plastic and, at the same time, falling collection and management of the plastic waste."
The pandemic has thus not only renewed appreciation for plastics, but also heightened awareness of the disposal problem.
"This is clearly a situation that companies need to get ahead of," said Wood. "Many companies are doing that, but … many of them are still thinking about how do they individually improve their performance, and how do they individually try to put in place measures to manage plastic waste."
Spencer agreed. "We have this great opportunity right now to shape policy, but to do that, we have to kind of stop (focusing on) competing, and really think about collaboration. So you have to share the expertise and start to understand everyone else's business. That's really what a value chain approach is, right? It's not just thinking about my business as a brand or my business as a waste management company. It's understanding how what I do impacts everyone else," she said. "I think that is really critical, and we need to do it right now so that we can properly have a value chain and position on what we want to see. Because once we do that, once we have a common viewpoint, we're going to be able to shape investment, policy, goals, and tools that help us deliver. But until we have that clear alignment within the polyolefin industry, we lose too much time fighting with each other and there just isn't time for that."
"The challenge… is very complex," said Bob Maughon, executive vice president/sustainability, technology and innovation as well as CTO and CSO at SABIC. " I think that you therefore need a suite of solutions." He noted that SABIC's new product platform, Trucircle, tackles the problem from four different directions: certified renewable products made from biobased feedstocks; certified circular products based on chemical, or feedstock, recycling; mechanically recycled solutions, which are compounds engineered for high recycled content; and designing for recyclability, whereby resins are tailored to make products easier to recycle.
"There's a need to think about …designing appropriately for the application, not overdesigning benefits and complexity into the structure of the package, which then makes recycling more complex," he continued. "There's definitely innovation [to do] on the material side, but it has to be done in concert with the machine manufacturers, the converters, and the brands to make sure that it meets the end requirements (without being) overdesigned."
Ultimately the problem is not plastics as such, but the efficient use of resources, the participants suggested.
"People are talking about the reduction of plastics, but I prefer talking about the smarter use of plastics and making sure that you try, when you can, to design for recycling," said Marco Jansen, circular economy leader at Braskem Europe. "It's not always possible -- sometimes it's more important to preserve food [than to] design for recycling specifically, but I think it's a very strong focus that we need to have."
Similarly, there is only so much resin producers can do to deliver economically viable circular solutions before end users may have to reconsider their assumptions about the aesthetics of packaging.
"I think that the brand owners and retailers maybe need to have a new view on recycled plastics and have a different perception of quality," said Jansen. "I'm thinking mainly for optical reasons. Sometimes we say, jokingly, that grey is the new white. People need to accept that grey isn't necessarily worse than white or natural packaging, and that in fact (there is) value in showing that something has been recycled."
As MRC informed earlier, Magnum's pint tubs are made using certified circular polypropylene (PP) from SABIC's TruCircle portfolio. When it comes to food and drink applications, recycled plastic has limited uses. Regulations forbid the use of post-consumer resin (PCR) in food & drink contact, as well as in hygiene and medical applications. However, brand owner Unilever and its partner SABIC have developed a solution and introduced it to some European markets. Their goal: prove that PCR can be transformed for use in food-contact applications safely.
According to MRC's ScanPlast report, overall PP production in Russia increased in January-July 2020 by 24% year on year to 1,063,700 tonne. ZapSibNeftekhim accounted for the main increase in the output.