However, huge volumes of plastic are also used for disposable packaging and products leading to many negative environmental consequences. If predicted strong growth of plastics continues with production from fossil fuels, the plastics sector will be responsible for 15% of the 2050 global annual carbon budget needed to achieve the internationally accepted goal to limit global warming to 2°C.
The sector is evolving. Innovation in the form of biodegradable plastics, recycled materials and plant-based polymers offer lower environmental impact in production. Closed loop recycling, transitioning towards the circular economy, offers further reduction of impact at end-of-use, and further reduces the impact of next generation manufacture of products. These opportunities are positive, but they are often happening in a fragmented way. In order for the sector to truly become circular, sustainability needs to be scaled up – and quickly.
Trucost’s paper Scaling Sustainable Plastics: Solutions to Drive Plastics towards a Circular Economy identifies two good practice case studies: Algix, a company producing a polymer called Solaplast from waste algae; and Dell, whose OptiPlex 3030 computer is produced using recycled plastic recovered from electronic equipment from its own take-back scheme. These innovations reflect both ‘front end’ and ‘back end’ value chain optimization, but in order for the benefits to be optimized, the whole sector needs to transition towards similar systems.
Scaling up use of sustainable plastic has its challenges. Industry experts identify technical issues in biopolymer production, as well as a hesitancy in the market, while recyclers are faced with competition from cheap virgin plastics due to low oil prices, as well as the export of waste plastic to Asia where recycling benefits from economies of scale and low costs, though anecdotally this is considered to be declining.
But amidst these challenges are many examples of success. Policies in some countries such as Japan have resulted in a recovery rate for plastic of more than 80%. Research in the UK identified 10-20% cost savings with the use of some recycled plastics, as well as supply chain security benefits and protection against future fluctuations of oil – a dwindling resource that is likely to become increasingly expensive.
The benefits of switching to sustainable plastic can be huge. If the entire computer manufacturing industry switched to using closed-loop recycled plastic, society would see an environmental benefit of $700 million per year. Through the use of algae-based bioplastic, the footwear sector could reduce environmental costs of plastic by over $7,000 per $1m of revenue, equivalent to 5% of its total supply chain environmental cost. With a global revenue of $208.7 billion, this could reduce the environmental costs of the sector by $1.5 billion per year. The soft drinks sector could benefit by an additional $1.3 billion saving. These interventions alone add up to $3.5 billion in environmental benefits.
The paper considers interventions required to transition the sector towards a circular economy. Collaboration is key. Stakeholders throughout the value chain, including manufacturers, plastic recyclers, brands, policy makers and academics need to communicate to identify the best options for innovation and implementation. Legislation on waste management and producer responsibility, particularly in the countries where consumption is highest, will help secure feedstock for next generation products. This may be difficult to implement but has been achieved in some countries. In addition, driving market demand for recycled plastic and biopolymers will help small projects expand to the size of conventional virgin plastic production, bringing costs down substantially.