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Creating More Sustainable Plastics

May 5, 2021
A new research report outlines the state of plastics sustainability for the coming decade.

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A combination of negative consumer sentiment, regulation and a global focus on sustainability has combined to push the issue of plastics sustainability to the forefront for many organizations, governments and individuals around the globe. If a new report from Lux Research is on target, plastics sustainability could become a primary focus over the coming decade.

In The Sustainable Plastics Roadmap: Recycling, Bioplastics, and Alternatives, Lux predicts that by 2030, 15% of plastics produced will be sustainable in nature. In the report, it forecasts the adoption of conventional and advanced recycling, bio-based plastics and alternative materials, and quantifies the impact of bans and other regulations to predict the future of sustainable plastics.

“Future projections of a circular economy emphasize that a combination of recycled and bio-based resources will serve as a feedstock for plastic needs,” Lux said in a press release. “However, in order for that idealistic future to be realized, there must be a major investment in new technologies, including advanced recycling tech and bio-based plastic capacity.”

According to Lux, single-use plastics are in the crosshairs right now with consumers, regulators and individual companies across various industries—many of which are trying to deploy sustainable solutions. As it explained: “Both companies that produce plastics and those that use them in their products need to understand the outlook for sustainable plastics and alternatives in order to prepare their [strategies].”

Rethinking Plastics Production

A rapidly-growing segment of municipal solid waste (MSW), plastics are found in all major MSW categories, according to the EPA. The agency says that the containers and packaging category had the most plastic tonnage (at over 14.5 million tons in 2018). This category includes bags, sacks, and wraps; other packaging; polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and jars; high-density polyethylene (HDPE) natural bottles; and other containers.

“Manufacturers also use plastic in durable goods, such as appliances, furniture, casings of lead-acid batteries and other products,” says the EPA, which doesn’t include plastics in transportation products (other than lead-acid batteries) in its analysis.

Currently, Lux says traditional plastic production is being reassessed for several key reasons, including:

  • Concerns about the impact of plastic waste have grown—and been exacerbated by waste importation bans like China’s National Sword policy, which has disrupted global trade.
  • Anti-plastic consumer sentiment is growing due to both real and perceived concerns surrounding waste, safety and the environment.
  • Anti-plastic regulation is growing globally, including bans on specific types of plastic products and general regulations penalizing the use of plastics.
  • There has been a technology boom in advanced recycling and waste management techniques.
  • Credible competitors to single-use plastics are emerging—both conventional (like aluminum cans) and novel (like advanced pulp products).

In researching this hot-button topic, Lux explored the combined impact of new technologies and approaches on the six major commodity plastics—polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density polypropylene (HDPE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), polypropylene (PP) and polystyrene (PS). It focused on the impact of four major types of threats to conventional plastics production: recycling, bio-based polymers, legislation, and alternative materials like paper and metal.

“A combination of negative consumer sentiment about plastics, regulation and a global focus on sustainability have combined to push the issue of plastics sustainability to the fore,” said Lux Research Director Anthony Schiavo in the press release.

“In 2030, 15% of plastics will be sustainable, fueled primarily by a tripling of global plastics recycling along with strong regulatory action that bans the most problematic types of plastic products,” he continued. “Chemicals companies will face stagnating demand for oil-derived plastics—even including pyrolysis oil—and must invest in recycling to find growth in the plastics space.”

Leaders and Laggards

Acknowledging that the issue of plastic waste will not be fixed within the next 10 years, Lux noted that even the most aggressive attempts to fix the problem still produce a degree of unrecycled plastic waste that must be dealt with. “Moreover,” it added, “plastic plays a crucial role in our economy, and eliminating it isn’t a net positive even from a sustainability standpoint.”

And while the plastics packaging space tends to garner the most attention, Lux said that the future of sustainable plastics hinges on a large, complex web of groups encompassing energy, paper, apparel, consumer goods and the public sector. And, major gaps in plastic sustainability remain. “Sustainability is not coming evenly to the plastics space,” the research firm concluded, “as the outlook for the most sustainable plastics is likely to improve while laggards stagnate—and major investments in infrastructure are still needed.”

About the Author

Bridget McCrea | Contributing Writer | Supply Chain Connect

Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers business and technology for various publications.

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