This graph is the reality of the plastics industry. Regardless of all the bans, new taxes (France) and evangelical anti-plastic rhetoric, nothing is going to change this graph. Furthermore there are around 40,000 different types of plastics in the market, in use today across all industry sectors in a huge number of applications and embedded into our lives.

Some of these 40,000 different types of plastics live in the seven groups we have become familiar with, it’s that number often found at the bottom of our plastic product. Yet, and depending on the application and customer specifications, many of these 40,000 different varieties contain colours, additives, and various compounds that make recycling impossible, uneconomical or just plain too difficult.

In a predictable example, in the last few days, the Airports Authority of India imposed a single-use plastic ban in all 129 airports, however to date only 16 have been declared plastic free. The headlines state “Airports Authority of India goes Green…” and this is typical of the communication we want to believe in that will solve the huge amount of plastic leakage into our environment set against the global growth in the plastics industry. We have declared war on plastic, a versatile material we cannot live without, a war we have no hope of winning and yet we persist.

(1) Cars: Modern innovations mean today’s plastics make up 50 percent of a vehicle’s volume, but only about 10 percent of its weight.[1]

(2) Planes: State-of-the-art airplanes, including the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, rely on composites such as CFRP (carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics). Boeing states that 50 percent of the primary structure of the 787 is made with composites (up from about 12 percent in most aircraft) in place of traditional materials such as aluminum sheeting. These composites help reduce the weight of the aircraft and contribute to a 20 percent reduction in fuel consumption. Better fuel efficiency also translates into lower carbon and other emissions during the lifetime of the aircraft.. And the planes can fly longer without refueling, potentially resulting in longer non-stop flights.[2] “With an estimated 35,000 new aircraft to be launched in the next 20 years, the aerospace industry is embracing thermoplastic composites as a cost-effective solution to support this growth,” says Will Kain, president of Tri-Mack Plastics.[3]

Now this just the tip of the iceberg when we look at the types of applications between a very large number of different business sectors and the plastics industry.

“So What Are The Solutions” 

Stop the dysfunctional programs and initiatives. Besides coalescing around single-use plastics companies, governments, NGO’s and individuals all seem to ‘doing their own thing’. The Montreal Protocol (MP) on CFC’s showed us we can unite around a single goal and single-use plastics is not one we should focus on. Significantly, the world phased-out 98% of the Ozone-Depleting Substances (ODS) contained in nearly 100 hazardous chemicals worldwide; every country is in compliance with stringent obligations; and, the MP has achieved the status of the first global regime with universal ratification; even the newest member state, South Sudan, ratified in 2013. UNEP received accolades for achieving global consensus that “demonstrates the world’s commitment to ozone protection, and more broadly, to global environmental protection”.[4]

We need a repeat for the plastics industry:

The first goal is to establish a framework of what a sustainable and circular plastics industry means. Once we have this framework we can unite and work towards common goals.

Next we focus on the supply chain. Operation Clean Sweep, an initiative by the American Chemistry Council, US Plastics Industry Association and Plastics Europe, could very well be a template for certification. The website states:

“In recent years and with increasing frequency, researchers have reported that seabirds, turtles and fish are ingesting a wide variety of plastic items, including pellets, flakes and powder that could affect their ability to breathe, swallow or digest foods properly. Most of these plastics are used in consumer products (e.g., bottles, caps, containers) that have been carelessly discarded. Some of this litter is in the form of resin pellets, flakes and powder that enter the waste stream and can end up in the ocean and our natural environment. When these pellets, flakes and powder are accidentally eaten by wildlife, they may not pass through their digestive tracts, which could lead to malnutrition or even starvation. The impacts of ingested marine debris can be significant and warrant efforts to prevent plastic materials from entering the environment.

While consumers are responsible for the proper recycling and disposal of consumer products and packaging, the plastics industry must focus on proper containment of plastic pellets, flakes and powder. We must prevent the pellets, flakes and powder from getting into waterways that eventually lead to the sea.”

Training staff, securing and certifying the supply chain is vital. In a separate article “Plastics — Let’s Start by Plugging Up the Gaps” provides the rationale and requirement to offer a range of options for industry to engage in other than signing global pledges on targets. Many companies, particularly those in Asia, will not commit to a public pledge on plastics & packaging targets but may well purchase plastics from a certified supply chain as part of their sustainability policies.

Global recycling definition: Language is everything and part of setting common goals. The Association of Plastic Recyclers and Plastic Recyclers Europe issued a press release in 2018 with a definition: “Plastics must meet four conditions for a product to be considered recyclable:

  1. “The product must be made with a plastic that is collected for recycling, has market value and/or is supported by a legislatively mandated program.
  2. The product must be sorted and aggregated into defined streams for recycling processes.
  3. The product can be processed and reclaimed/recycled with commercial recycling processes.
  4. The recycled plastic becomes a raw material that is used in the production of new products.
  5. Innovative materials:

Innovative materials must demonstrate that they can be collected and sorted in sufficient quantities, must be compatible with existing industrial recycling processes or will have to be available in sufficient quantities to justify operating new recycling processes.”

R&D for Standardisation: Do we need 40,000 different types of plastics? Probably not and more importantly are these plastics recyclable? However the real point is that a sustainable and circular plastics & packaging industry will require some level of standardisation so all plastics & packaging can be recyclable and here is where and why we need a strong focus on R&D. To date the focus has been on biodegradable plastics and while we will see some growth in this area, it will be many years before it can compete with petroleum based plastics.

“The main issues complicating plastic recycling are the quality and price of the recycled product, compared with their unrecycled counterpart. Plastic processors require large quantities of recycled plastic, manufactured to strictly controlled specifications and at a competitive price.

However, since plastics are easily customised to the needs (functional or aesthetic) of each manufacturer, the diversity of the raw material complicates the recycling process, making it costly and affecting the quality of the end product. In consequence, the demand for recycled plastics accounts for only 6% of plastics demand in Europe.”[5]

Collection and infrastructure: This is not new but one that still must remain in the conversation. Specifically for the Asian region and other emerging markets, separation-at-source with an efficient and convenient collection system still offers the best alternative to the adhoc system that exists today. As Doug Woodring from Ocean Recovery Alliance has stated

“So if you get it in the first mile, clean from your house, there is much more chance that either the unregulated waste pickers or the very advanced shredders and entrepreneurs are going to get that material and make use of it.” [6]

For industry, such as the car and aerospace sectors that gravitate towards more innovative plastics the major barrier that must be overcome is one faced by all new materials  –  lack of knowledge about mechanical properties and processing characteristics, and lack of large-scale demonstrators that prove the economic, technical and environmental justification for using these materials. Although there are a number of projects that are addressing these issues, the push from the manufacturing side of the supply chain to find a solution to its carbon fiber waste problem generally isn’t matched by a pull from the supply chain’s design side to find ways of using recycled carbon fiber products.[7]

Finally we need to change the narrative. We should no longer be recycling for the environment, a rather abstract concept in an increasingly urbanised world. We need to recycle to build an economically viable recycling industry in each and every country. We need to understand what that means, what it will take, and work towards this goal. This single goal will save the environment and is much more tangible and realistic. The China Sword policy changed the game for everyone. Until that point, we recycled for the environment and did not care where it went. When China closed the door, the recycling industry collapsed in many western countries and we need to rebuild these industries. cites that a U.S. recycling rate of 75% by 2030 would create 1.1 million new jobs.

Now this article is not meant to demean all the great work by thousands of people who take part in clean-ups, recycling programs and campaigns that results in an attempt to solve the massive amounts of plastic and packaging waste we have all around us. It’s just uncoordinated when the real focus must be a sustainable and circular plastics and packaging industry.

This is what the economic future looks like. Asia will make or break the targets on climate change and how sustainable we can become. Asia is also and often the beginning of the supply chain for the rest of the world. Without a coordinated effort, in the same spirit of the Montreal Protocol; without a common framework that unites all stakeholders, we will have a multitude of actors all over the place attempting bits and pieces that will achieve very little. Population growth statistics and our increasingly complex lifestyles provide the evidence for this argument.


This article first appeared in Medium on 09 January 2019. Automotive parts image from Plasticos Llorens