The Plastics Industry Is Changing – Because It Has To

Wednesday, November 13th, 2019 | 1050 Views

That’s the general consensus among some of Europe’s leading plastic industry commentators – the very people working to re-shape the industry.

While plastic, in its myriad forms is ingrained in every aspect of our life, ‘plastiphobia’ has entered the vernacular as a condition, and the regulators are cracking down hard on an industry that already faces a number of complex challenges.

But plastipobia shouldn’t be a thing. Plastic should not be demonised, rather treated like the crux of modern living that it actually is. The problem is not with plastic per se, rather recycling of plastic and its inappropriate usage.

The plastics industry has become acutely self-aware, and some might even say introspective. Directive targets must be met, new processes researched, developed and launched, and consumer education delivered, and consumer expectations met. And looming over all of this is the spectre of sustainability, and the demonisation of plastics.

Speaking at Circularity for Polymers: The ICIS Recycling Conference in Berlin last week Paul Hodges, Chairman of International E-Chem, said there’s an awful lot of work to do in a very limited time.

“It’s very clear there’s a paradigm shift going on in the industry. Companies are waking up to the fact that waste plastics are a really big issue – one that’s not going to go away. Single use plastics are going to be in the firing line for the next few years – and business models simply must change,” he emphasised.

The core of the shift required is the fact that people don’t know how to recycle plastics, but they do understand why we need to. That move to smaller, local chemical recycling plants – which are more efficient and effective at separating out the different types of plastic to help better achieve the dream of a circular economy – is certainly on the horizon, yet still only a nascent industry.

Another hurdle is that collection is simply not big enough. Mark Victory, ICIS Senior Editor, Recycling says local authorities – where most responsibility for household waste collection lies – have been underfunded since the global economic downturn more than a decade again, and investment in infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing complexity of packaging as a result. And that domestic issue is further exacerbated by China’s decision to stop taking waste plastics from the rest of the world.

What the industry urgently needs is project teams to work out how to produce more sustainable product and better recycling collection and processing facilities. Brand owners which have committed to the 2025 deadline need reassurance from the plastics industry.

“The sector needs heavy investment, to catch up across the entire chain. There’s no point in everyone wanting to recycle if the infrastructure isn’t there. We are relying on people to understand and embrace recycling systems – which is hard to predict. There’s a strong education element to it. For most people, plastic is simply plastic – they are unaware of the different types and what to do with it,” said Victory.

The biggest industry challenge – and perhaps opportunity – is the shift from massive mechanical recycling plants to smaller, local chemical recycling plants. “The new industry business model is small scale and local, whereas for the last 30 to 40 years, all we’ve talked about is massive and global – and this is a complete game changer,” Hodges concluded.


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