Global plastic packaging production is in need of a new approach to improve efficiency and sustainability across all facets of the industry, according to new research and industry executives.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in partnership with the World Economic Forum (WEF) and supported by McKinsey & Company, released a report in January discussing how to improve the system effectiveness of plastics, primarily by embracing the principles of a circular economy.
The charity, established in 2010, is dedicated to accelerating the transition to a circular economy, which it defines as a system that “keeps products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times”.
The report findings were based on interviews with over 180 industry experts and on analysis of more than 200 reports.
According to the report, 95% of plastic packaging material value – or $80-$120bn annually – is lost to the economy after a short first use. Only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling.
When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5% of material value is retained for a subsequent use, the report added.
The report raises three main suggestions to improve system effectiveness.
First, it calls for the creation of an effective after-use plastics economy, by improving the economics and uptake of recycling, reuse and controlled biodegradation for targeted applications.
Second, the report for greater efforts to drastically reduce leakage of plastics into natural systems, particularly the ocean, and other negative externalities.
Lastly, it calls for the industry to de-couple plastics from fossil feedstocks, largely by exploring and adopting renewable feedstocks.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) said it welcomed additional opportunities to partner with others in “the shared effort to recycle and recover more plastics, and to keep plastics out of the marine environment”.
When asked about decoupling from fossil feedstocks, the ACC said it should not be assumed that all biobased material is inherently better for the environment or reduces greenhouse gas emissions, compared to plastics derived from natural gas.
“As an innovative industry, we’re always exploring new and emerging technologies, but before considering any substitution we need to take a close look at the full life cycle impacts and infrastructure for recovery,” the ACC’s Plastics Division said in an emailed statement.
The report, which engaged a group of industry advisors to help compile its contents, drew figures from companies and organisations across the plastics manufacturing, processing, packaging, recycling and branding areas.
Trade group European Bioplastics (EUBP) recently voiced its support for the report, advocating that a shift to bioplastics would deliver better economic and environmental outcomes by replacing fossil with bio-based feedstocks.
Jeff Wooster, global sustainability director of packaging and specialty plastics at Dow Chemical, contributed to the report.
In an interview with ICIS, Wooster said that plastics use a “very small percentage” of fossil fuels, and that it would not be possible to remediate fossil fuel shortages by just eliminating or moving away from fossil fuels as a feedstock.
Wooster said that some decoupling could be achieved through the use of more efficient plastics and improving their life cycle, through recycling or recapturing the embedded energy value or feedstock material.
However, he doesn’t think that renewable feedstocks will gain a greater position in the industry in the next five to 10 years, because of the difficulty involved in making plastics from renewable sources.
“At the present time, it’s more economical, and therefore more sustainable, to use more conventional feedstocks,” Wooster said.
Instead, he envisions a slow shift in which renewable feedstock-based plastics continue to grow at a healthy pace, but will remain a small percentage of the market for a long time.
“As far as renewable-based plastics go, I think it will be a long haul, rather than a short term play,” Wooster said.
The report places considerable emphasis on collaboration and engagement, proposing various tools such as a Global Plastics Protocol to establish a core set of standards for the industry. It also suggests mobilising large-scale "moon shot" innovations, building a base of economic and scientific evidence, engaging policymakers, and coordinating and driving communication.
Wooster agrees that collaboration could go a long way in helping the industry on a global basis, and report would help with boosting attention towards the idea of a global plastics economy.
“Historically, the different parts of the value chain have not collaborated very well, and that has resulted in the process that we currently have, which they describe in the report as ‘a linear take-and-dispose’ model,” Wooster said.
“Perhaps there was one segment of the industry that was a bit slow to adopt ideas. I think having the report can certainly help push those people along.”
US chemical company DuPont was also involved with the compilation of the report.
DuPont spokesperson Daniel Turner said the report had many “ambitious but actionable” recommendations that the company supported, that are consistent with DuPont’s sustainability goals.
Turner said that DuPont’s corporate purpose included an official commitment to reducing society’s dependence on fossil fuels, which has led to the company actively developing new products.
As a result, he said, DuPont had “the most extensive portfolio of biobased materials in the industry and regularly continue to introduce new renewable materials”.
DuPont’s biobased products include enzymes used in cotton textile processing, propanediol used in products across the personal hygiene and cosmetics category as well as in carpets and fabrics, and separate enzymes used for laundry detergents.
Turner pointed to the recent announcement of ajoint development with Archer Daniels Midland of a renewable monomer that will enable the production of a platform of renewably-sourced polymers for packaging and other applications.
As for the economic feasibility of the report’s suggestions, he noted that the report had many suggestions, “some of which are exceptionally ambitious and cannot be successfully implemented by any one company, any single trade association or even one country”.
To achieve them, collaboration and a long-term view would be necessary, he said.
“In terms of renewable materials, DuPont has always focused on delivering products with superior performance at competitive prices so our value propositions have never depended on a ‘green premium’,” Turner said.
“Therefore, the economic realities we face are inherently driven by delivering real value to customers through more sustainable solutions and this principle is what guides our choices of what we work on.”
Although the establishment of global standards is a central theme in the report, Wooster doesn’t believe that standardisation is necessarily the best solution to efficiency issues affecting the plastics industry.
“As with any recommendations that you make in a report that’s intended to be at global scale, sometimes some items are easier to implement in one geography than in another,” he said.
Rather, Wooster said that flexibility should be the goal, along with the best resource efficiency possible.
“If standardisation is the best tool to give us that result, that’s fine, but if we have some other tool to give us that result, that’s fine too.”