The Age Of Circularity
Renewable and Recycled Products Preserve the Benefits of Plastics while also Tackling Climate Change
Plastics have come under increasing criticism. In March last year, the European Parliament passed a law on the abolition of single-use plastics, which the British ‚Guardian‘ called a “declaration of war on plastic waste”. Greenpeace speaks bluntly of “climate killer plastic”. Such rhetoric suggests that plastics are generally an evil that one has to get rid of sooner rather than later. This narrative is not only harmful to the plastics industry but also means that the important role of plastic products in everyday life is overlooked, and so hinders the development of even better solutions.
Of course, there are undeniable problems, especially in the post-use phase of plastics, and there are good arguments against products that offer very limited added value in relation to their environmental footprint — such as the disposable plastic bags at the fruit counter. But that‘s only one side of the coin. The other shows the unique contribution that plastics make to the preservation of food, for example, or to the safety and health of millions of people every day. And yes, plastics even contribute to the fight against climate change by, for example, making vehicles, airplanes and transported goods lighter and thereby reducing fuel consumption.
“It would be desirable to have a
constructive discussion that focuses
on how we can use and develop
the unique abilities of modern plastics.”
It would therefore be desirable to have a constructive discussion that focuses on how we can continue to use and develop the unique abilities of modern plastics in the future, without neglecting the problematic aspects that need to be addressed. Two key words are central to such a debate: sustainable raw materials and circular economy. Combined and consistently thought through to the end, these two aspects address almost all current criticisms of conventional plastics, from the consumption of finite resources to the waste issue in the post-use phase.
“The two aspects ‘sustainable raw materials‘
and ‘circular economy‘ address almost all
current criticisms of conventional plastics.”
Creating the Necessary Conditions
Successfully developing a circular economy to improve the sustainability of plastics essentially depends on three pillars.
Technology: Innovative technologies form the basis for comprehensively establishing more sustainable, circular plastics. This applies to the raw materials, their processing, and the collection and reprocessing of used products. Some of these technologies are already in existence and can be used commercially. The renewable raw material that Neste produces primarily from waste and residues in a patented refining process is one example. Polymers based on it can be used as a drop-in solution within the existing infrastructure for plastics production, even in sensitive areas such as food packaging or medical products.
Other technologies are on the way to market maturity, such as the chemical recycling of plastic waste that cannot be recycled mechanically. Commercial-scale applications will not only help to achieve recycling goals but will also significantly expand the raw material base for new, more sustainable products.
Yet other processes are still in their infancy or will only be developed in the future. For example, Neste is working on solutions that should enable the processing of other types of renewable raw materials. One example is the ‘power-to-X’ technology, which produces a petroleum substitute based on renewable hydrogen. Another option is the processing of municipal solid waste.
In addition, there are innovative approaches in product development such as ‘design for recycling’. These range from more robust plastics with a longer service life to reduce the amount of waste, to the deliberate reduction of complexity in packaging, making it easier to recycle.
“Sustainable, circular solutions serve a social
need that is being articulated ever more clearly.”
Social Initiatives: Sustainable, circular solutions serve a social need that is being articulated ever more clearly. This means joint social efforts are needed to help related concepts gain traction.
A current example of this is the European Plastics Pact. Initiated by the governments of France and the Netherlands, the project aims at creating a ‘public-private coalition’ in order to establish a circular economy for plastics. More than 80 countries, companies, associations and NGOs across Europe contributed to the wording and signed the pact on March 6, 2020. This initiative demonstrates how entrepreneurial, political and social ideas and energy can be brought together to advance sustainable solutions.
The complex challenges of a circular economy on a technological, procedural and regulatory level require new forms of cooperation. Industry players and actors in the scientific, political and social arena alike must develop a willingness to collaborate even in previously unfamiliar constellations in order to gain a holistic view of the overall problem and to develop the most promising possible solutions.
Neste has been successfully practicing this approach for years in the field of renewable fuels. Likewise, when it comes to renewable and circular polymers, we are in constant exchange with a wide range of established corporate partners in the recycling industry, specialty chemicals, plastics processing and branded goods, as well as with research institutions, start-ups and regulators. It is clear that the plastics industry faces common challenges that no single party can solve on its own.
Acting Pragmatically and Optimistically: The plastics industry is on the threshold of a new era — the age of circularity, where products are based on circular value chains and made from renewable and recycled raw materials. The technical, political and social conditions for progressing on this path are encouraging.
However, this development is not a sure-fire success. There is fundamental resistance to plastics in general. Technological hurdles must be overcome and questions regarding the handling of raw material requirements have to be answered. Last but not least, whether we will be successful depends on the attitude with which we as an industry approach the problems. In my view, the following three aspects are particularly important.
First, an open mindset: there will be no single technology that magically solves all the problems. Different challenges and conditions will require different approaches. We should therefore give various options a chance, testing and evaluating them while always keeping our eyes open for even more innovative possibilities to come.
Second, pragmatism: let‘s not wait for perfect, flawless solutions, but start making use of what is already available. Ultimately, it is always about replacing fossil oil with more sustainable alternatives. Sure, there may be cost issues to be addressed and ever more extensive testing desirable, but time is running out. Renewable solutions have shown that their use can dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions over a product‘s life cycle compared to fossil alternatives.
Third, optimism: Our best response to current criticism is contagious confidence, which will almost inevitably lead to innovative, still better answers. My firm belief is that, in the context of the climate and environmental debate, renewable and circular plastics are not a problem, but an important part of the solution.