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The changing single-use plastics landscape
Is the chemical industry prepared?
Bans on the production and use of single-use plastics, as well as rising demand for reusable plastics and sustainable alternatives, are affecting the chemical industry. To address the disruption, find opportunities for growth, and contribute to increased sustainability, the industry must reduce disposable plastics and look for alternative sourcing opportunities.
- Consumer activism is driving regulatory action
- The chemical industry is at a crossroads
- The way forward: Chemical companies have long-term sustainable options
- Final thoughts
Consumer activism is driving regulatory action
Plastics have become a part of everyday life—they’re used in food packaging, cars, and innumerable household items we rely on for a better quality of life.
The production of plastic has increased substantially, growing from 1.5 million tons in 1950 to over 320 million tons in 2015.1 And the single largest category of plastics is single-use plastics (SUPs). These disposable plastics, which are used only once before they’re thrown away or recycled, are largely used for packaging and generate the most waste.2
But in recent years, three major issues seem to be driving consumer perception and prompting increased regulatory pressure:
1. Usage of fossil fuels in manufacturing plastics and GHG emissions
One of the primary concerns, centered around sourcing, is the usage of fossil fuels or nonrenewable energy in the manufacturing of single-use plastics. Producing SUPs using fossil fuels increases the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions significantly—about 1.8 billion tons of CO2 are released annually.3
Replacing fossil-based energy with renewable sources would reduce GHG emissions from plastics by up to 51 percent.4 Furthermore, recycling disposable plastics reduces total energy consumption by 79 percent for polyethylene terephthalate (PET), 88 percent for high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and 88 percent for polypropylene (PP).5
2. Inadequate sustainable disposal and recycling solutions
Decreasing capacity for sustainable disposing of plastics waste is another cause for concern. Many landfills in developed nations are reaching their maximum capacity, driving those countries to export their plastic waste to emerging countries for processing. For instance, by 2021, only 15 years of landfill capacity is expected to remain in the US.6
In recent years, over 50 percent of the waste from plastic was being exported to China, with the US alone sending 1.4 million tons of scrap plastics annually to China for recycling.7 But since China's ban on waste plastic import in 2017, many developed nations are struggling to cope.
Moreover, deficiencies in current recycling programs cause substantial amounts of SUPs to end up in landfills. Globally, less than 9 percent of plastics waste is recycled, with the rest ending up in landfills that are usually not properly managed, thereby polluting the environment.8
3. Potential risks to public health
SUPs may have serious consequences on public health as human beings are consuming plastics that contain carcinogens and other toxic substances that can cause cancer. According to a new study in Environmental Science & Technology, human beings are consuming as much as 52,000 microplastic particles a year.9
Plastics and the associated chemicals typically end up in human bodies from eating seafood—mostly sea organisms that have ingested microplastics because of the degradation of products containing SUPs.10
The chemical industry is at a crossroads
Regulations limiting the use of SUPs have ramifications for chemical companies, especially those players that produce polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) for the consumer packaging sector. Given that SUPs represented a third of all plastics produced in 2017,11 a ban on SUPs may result in slower revenue growth for petrochemical companies.
Products associated with the highest number of regulatory limits include plastic bags, food containers, bottle caps, and straws.12 Consumer product companies are likely to switch to other relatively less energy-intensive materials like paper or biopolymers, altering the supply chains. As a result, there will likely be reduced capital investments in ethylene plants, as ethylene remains the backbone of all major polymers used in products containing SUPs.13
What will be the magnitude of impact of a SUPs ban on chemical industry growth? Demand for petrochemicals will likely grow more than the demand for fuels through 2040 and emerge as one of the major drivers for global oil sales.14 There are a significant number of polyethene plants that are currently being constructed worldwide—about seven million metric tons of polyethylene capacity is expected to come online between 2019 and 2022 in the US.15
The underlying assumption is that demand for plastics will grow at an average annual rate of three percent. But given the changing consumer preferences and regulatory risks, the growth rate in demand for plastics could potentially halve in the long run, and a decrease in SUP consumption could lead to overcapacity and a decrease in prices.16
The way forward: Chemical companies have long-term sustainable options
To prepare for and thrive in this shifting landscape, chemical companies appear to have three options:
Addressing the SUPs challenge sustainably will require that chemical manufacturers companies adopt practices that enable nearly closed-loop systems with minimum waste and constant material recycling and reuse. Developing innovative solutions for tackling plastics purification, decomposition, and conversion can be possible if the industry advances recycling technologies and brings new solutions to scale through continued collaboration across stakeholders.
Many chemical companies have begun taking action with reusable plastics—taking a single-use item and making it usable multiple times. And this could be a game-changer for the industry in the long run.
1 E. Beckman, “The world's plastic problem in numbers.” August 13, 2018.
2 R. Geyer, J. R. Jambeck, and K. L. Law, “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made.” Science Advances, 2017.
3 University of California - Santa Barbara, “Plastic's carbon footprint: Researchers conduct first global assessment of the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from plastics.” ScienceDaily, April 15, 2019.
5 The Association of Plastic Recyclers, Life Cycle Impacts for Postconsumer Recycled Resins, December 2018.
6 James Thompson, Waste Business Journal, SWEEP Steering Committee & Rob Watson, Chief Science Officer, Eco-Hub LLC. Founder & Co-chair SWEEP Standard.
7 J. Dell, “157,000 Shipping Containers of U.S. Plastic Waste Exported to Countries with Poor Waste Management in 2018,” March 6, 2019.
8 R. Geyer, J. R. Jambeck, and K. L. Law, “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” Science Advances, 2017.
9 Sarah Gibbens, "You eat thousands of bits of plastic every year," National Geographic, June 5, 2019
10 B. Bienkowski, “Two-thirds of all plastic ever produced remains in the environment,” February 19, 2019.
11 BP, “BP Energy Outlook 2019: News and insights: Home,” February 14, 2019.
13 Main polymers used for producing single-use plastics are HDPE, LDPE, PET, PP, PS, and EPS.
14 The International Energy Agency, "The Future of Petrochemicals".
15 Petrochemical Update, US polyethylene flood in 2H 2019 to squeeze supply chain, February 26, 2019.
16 Christof Ruhl, “The war on plastic will dent oil demand more than anticipated,” Financial Times, February 2019.
17 Closed Loop Partners, "Accelerating circular supply chains for plastics".
18 Plastics Industry Association, "Advanced Recycling".
19 World Economic Forum, “An economic opportunity worth billions—Charting the new territory,” January 2014.
21 Eco-Business, “Sabic and customers launch certified circular polymers from mixed plastic waste.”
22 LyondellBasell, “LyondellBasell and SUEZ Collaborate with Samsonite to Create Recycled Plastic Suitcase Collection,” April 19, 2019.