Closing the plastic loop

Plastic recycling has become a hot topic. The seriousness of plastic pollution has forced itself upon us. Industry, indeed the world, needs to close the plastic loop. But we don’t know how yet. Industry and policy makers will have to mount a concerted effort that includes taxation of fossil carbon in chemicals and materials. In order to ensure an income to the recycling industry, while simultaneously cleaning up the environment.

This is the second article in a series on plastic recycling. We published the first article on November 17.

Closing the plastic loop
Plastic for recycling. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Plastic recycling and CO2 emission reduction should not be confused

It is important not to confuse plastic waste policy and climate policy. On this website, we have argued again and again that in comparison to fuel consumption, the amount of carbon stored in materials is small. Plastic recycling will therefore not save us from climate change. Conversely, plastic incineration will not add significantly to global carbon dioxide emissions. Whereas incineration may well be preferable to littering the environment. On the other hand, CO2 capture and utilization (CCU) from such plants will still be a good idea.

Also, we should not look upon bioplastics as an alternative to plastic recycling. Or to be less strict on them when it comes to plastic littering. Bioplastics can only be relevant if their material properties outperform existing plastics – fossil-based or others. And if they beat existing plastics in biodegradability, upcycling or reuse. In short: we need to close the plastic loop, whatever the plastic’s provenance.

Closing the plastic loop

German nova-Institute recently published a comprehensive overview of the present status of chemical plastic recycling technologies. Entitled Chemical Recycling – Status, Trends, and Challenges. At present, there are gaps in the life cycle of plastic products, the report tells us. Even in Europe, the global frontrunner in closing the plastic loop, 1 million tons of plastic disappear into the environment each year (out of 30 million tons produced). Elsewhere, there are much larger gaps in the plastic loop. Chemical recycling is key to mastering these gaps.

Chemical recycling can process more waste streams than mechanical recycling, the report tells us. But many of these technologies are in early development. Their cost-effectiveness and ecological impact need to be assessed. Many companies are confident: they already developed and even implemented their technologies at a small scale. Propelled by commitments of large-scale polymer producers, who promise to increase the amount of recycled plastic in their products. Some recycling companies aim to be operational in 2021 already.

plastic bottle recycling
Containers for plastic bottle recycling in Jerusalem. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Policy interventions are essential

But as we argued in our first article, all recycling technologies now in development together will not close the plastic loop. The system as such appears to be unsustainable. Therefore, the sector needs to redesign the system. Starting right from the beginning: plastics design and properties – as Alle Bruggink proposed earlier this year. Plastics need to be designed and produced with an eye on their recyclability. Then, the effort of recycling needs to span the entire value chain. Plastics producers and recycling companies need to be involved, and waste collectors. nova-Institute argues that this sector-wide collaboration is an area with high expectations on the one hand, but great uncertainties and scepticism on the other. The sector eagerly awaits policy to step in: with evaluation and regulation. The proposed European Green Deal should specify conditions.

Policy makers should also listen to critics of chemical recycling. These put an emphasis on reduction of plastics use. They furthermore argue that many recycling technologies are not mature yet. If cheap downcycling options like pyrolysis become widely available, industry will not bother to invest in more elaborate recycling schemes; certainly not when pyrolysis can be done in existing petrochemical equipment. Such more elaborate schemes would target material reduction, product design for recycling, collection and separation. Nevertheless, nova-Institute claims that more and more companies want to move away from fossil carbon. In order to do this, they need alternative carbon sources, ‘renewable carbon’. This again points to the need for regulation. This should focus in particular on the question of which technologies count as recycling and could be included in the recycling quota. Regulation should direct the waste stream to the most suitable technology, with the lowest environmental impact, in a complementary approach.

A policy framework

In its report Renewable Carbon – Key to a Sustainable and Future-Oriented Chemical and Plastic Industry, nova-Institute specifies such a policy approach. We mention just a few of their recommendations.
– Taxation of fossil carbon in chemicals and plastics. It would be quite possible to introduce a fossil carbon tax if not globally, then only regionally, e.g. in Europe. Imported products would then be taxed, while the tax could be refunded for exports. Taxing fossil carbon can also spur a business model based on recycling. For if oil remains cheap (as forecasted), virgin plastic will remain to be cheap for decades to come.
– Discontinuation of any funding programmes in the fossil domain. Every year, the G7 countries spend at least $ 100bn for the production and consumption of oil, gas, and coal.
– Higher costs for fossil CO2 emissions in the emissions trading system (ETS).
– Development of certificates and labels indicating the share of renewable carbon (total share of recycled material, biomass and CO2) in products.
– Establishment of quotas of renewable carbon in ‘drop in’ products in the chemical and plastics industries (e.g. 30 % of all polypropylene must be made from renewable carbon by 2030).
Reporting: requiring chemical and plastics industries to issue report annually about the percentage of renewable carbon used in their production processes.

nova-Institute stresses that policy measures should address renewable carbon – which covers biomass, direct CO2 utilisation and recycling. And not be confined to one of these areas (as is done now, with the strong policy emphasis on recycling and the circular economy). And, as we indicated already, policy will have to address economics first and foremost. Oil is cheap and will probably continue to be so for many years to come. Without policy interventions like taxation and charging CO2 emissions, virgin plastics will remain the cheapest option for a long time. But with a focused policy, closing the plastic loop may be done faster than we now can imagine.

Written together with Alle Bruggink.

Interesting? Then also read:
Use more plastics, says Michael Carus, but responsibly
The role of chemistry in the reduction of plastic waste
Circular economy: bio-plastics have an issue

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