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Making plastic industry ‘sustainable’

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Plastic, the material which is threatening our ecosystems, can also become a crucial element for the global economy's net-zero goals

As per the United Nations Environment Programme, every minute, the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the oceans. Approximately 7 billion of the 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic produced from 1950-2017 became plastic waste, ending up in landfills or being dumped across the water bodies.

In the words of the UNEP, “Plastic pollution can alter habitats and natural processes, reducing ecosystems’ ability to adapt to climate change, directly affecting millions of people’s livelihoods, food production capabilities and social well-being.”

However, plastic, the material which is threatening our ecosystems, can also become a crucial element for the global economy’s net-zero goals.

Decoding the change

As per an Economist Impact webinar, “In order to cut waste and greenhouse-gas emissions, the plastics sector is reorganising its production and technology base, developing alternative raw materials and energy sources, and innovating in new technologies and investments.”

Take India’s case for example. The Asian economic powerhouse is also one of the world’s top users of plastics, and this industry is anticipated to grow further.

Given the fact that plastic is a part and parcel of the country’s socio-economic fold, it is difficult to get rid of it completely. While the nation is now seeing an increase in the usage of biodegradable plastics and alternative materials like paper, cloth, and glass, experts believe that the plastic industry needs to be regulated with the principles of ‘Circular Economy’, where increasing recycling and reuse, and creating biodegradable substitutes of the material can be aggressively promoted by the government.

India also has a large but unorganised recycling industry that can be backed further with efficient waste collection and segregation systems, along with a sound mechanism to prevent contamination from the material.

In June 2023, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Guwahati, one of India’s premier research institutes, set up the NRL-Centre of Excellence (CoE) for ‘Sustainable Materials Translational Facility on Bioplastics’ at its campus. The new facility will work towards the development of environment-friendly sustainable plastics.

In the recently concluded CHINAPLAS 2023, Asia’s premier plastics and rubber trade fair, over 3,900 exhibitors presented their latest innovations in adherence to the circular economy concept. Four eco-friendly thematic zones, including the ‘Recycling Technology Zone’, ‘Recycled Plastics Zone’ and ‘Bioplastics Zone’ and ‘Eco-friendly Additives Zone’, were set up during the event.

Over 200 machine makers and materials providers showcased an array of sustainable solutions in these four theme zones.

As per the World Bank, around 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste is being generated every year and this will reach 3.5 billion tons by 2050. Regions like East Asia and Pacific to witness their plastic waste generation increase by 70% by 2050. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation too claimed that the world’s oceans would contain around 937 million tons of plastic compared to 895 million tons of fish by 2050. COVID-19 pushed single-use plastics usage by as much as 300%.

So clearly the plastics industry is facing a steep task to come up with quick solutions to offset these scary predictions. Breakthroughs showcased by IIT Guwahati and CHINAPLAS 2023 have shown that the industry is up for the challenge.

Discussing the circular approach

The circular economy concept aims to reduce the amount of plastic waste generated by applying a “closed loop” system where plastics are produced, used and reused in a continuous cycle to prevent its leakage into the environment. This model addresses the challenges of minimizing the wastage created by single-use plastics.

For example, the packaging industry accounts for the largest segment of plastic applications. Application of the ‘Circular Economy’ principles in this sector would require innovations in production technologies and materials to ensure reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastic products. Also, the stakeholders will have to ensure that disposed items are properly collected, recycled or composted, before reusing them.

A study from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University in Singapore suggests that reusable plastic bags are more environmentally-friendly than those from paper and cotton, in cities and countries with efficient waste management systems.

As per BIGCOMMERCE, Sustainable Packaging should meet conditions like being beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its lifecycle, meeting performance and cost requirements while being sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy. Also, the solutions need to optimize the use of renewable or recycled source materials, while being manufactured with clean production technologies and best practices and last but not least, being effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed-loop cycles.

A CGS survey of 1,000 American consumers found that almost 70% of respondents considered sustainability as at least “somewhat important” and almost half (47%) said they “would pay 25% more for sustainable products.”

Another Nielsen research found that 48% of US consumers were willing to change their consumption habits to lower their impact on the environment. The survey company’s analysis further found that sustainable product sales in the United States have grown nearly 20% since 2014, and the company estimates that sales would reach $150 billion by 2024.

BIGCOMMERCE has also suggested measures like reducing packaging materials, minimizing waste, shipping small packages (cost friendly too), recycling packaging materials, using plant-based and edible packaging methods, bringing compostable and biodegradable plastic alternatives into the play, and last but not least, using manufacturing partners with sustainable practices, as immediate solutions for the industry.

New trends are emerging

A report from ManufacturingToday found that plastic-oriented industries are taking an interest in chemical recycling technologies, which break down plastics into building blocks to convert them into secondary raw materials for producing new raw materials.

Chemical recycling has also been found ideal for treating multi-layered or heavily contaminated plastic, as the process can manufacture high-quality recycled material.

“Mechanical recycling has become better and more efficient in turning out good quality secondary materials. Digitalization, artificial intelligence and automation have contributed to more efficient recycling operations that many companies offering recycling technologies have added these to the capabilities of their machines,” ManufacturingToday remarked.

“Bottle-to-bottle recycling has been taken to a higher level in processing post-consumer PET bottles to high-grade recycled PET (rPET) material, making it possible to produce bottles from as high as 100% recycled PET (rPET). Also, bottle-to-bottle recycling has been able to meet the high safety standards required for food packaging with no risk of contamination. Another innovation is the development of techniques in the recycling of multilayer flexible packaging that now, 100% of multilayer film production waste can be recycled,” it commented further.

Innovations like recycling methods like injection moulding systems, extrusion technologies and blow moulding systems are seeing huge R&D-related investments. Also, materials solutions geared toward improving the properties of recycled resins like additives and stabilizing agents are supporting the plastics industry’s sustainability bid as well.

“The urge to make plastics more sustainable will encourage manufacturing firms to use sustainable plastics. The global recycled plastics market size garnered 50,465.24 kilotons in 2021 and will depict a CAGR of 3.3% from 2022 through 2030. A marked rise in plastics recycling rates and better plastic waste treatment could facilitate the circular economy. Forward-looking companies will likely focus on diverting waste plastics towards recycling facilities, a trend poised to favour market growth,” remarked Grand View Research.

Innovations galore

A report from the IDTechEx ‘Sustainable Packaging Market 2023-2033’ explores the sustainable materials, leading players, and technology trends driving the industry, while presenting a forecast for the sustainable packaging market segmented into 21 different materials.

As per it, plastics recycled through mechanical and chemical means, along with the ‘Bioplastics’ and ‘Biobased Materials’, will guide the innovations in the industry in the coming days. IDTechEx’s analysis of 95 start-ups operating in sustainable packaging found over twenty different biobased materials with over $4 billion in the investment pipeline.

Under the RUBIO project, 18 partners are currently turning the vision of a sustainable plastics industry into reality. These stakeholders are trying to use regionally available plant residues to create versatile, sustainable products that are recyclable and biodegradable.

As part of the project’s roadmap, the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP is developing new types of bioplastic polybutylene succinate (PBS) so that it can be used for significantly more applications. Together with the company POLIFILM EXTRUSION GmbH, the Fraunhofer IAP has developed an initial commercial product, as per reports.

“Bioplastics are increasingly providing an alternative to petroleum-based plastics. These sustainable materials offer a number of advantages: They are made from renewable resources and help to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels and CO2 emissions into the environment. They can be biodegradable and have processing properties comparable to those of classic petroleum-based plastics. Like classic plastics, bioplastics can be sorted, fractionated and recycled,” as per a report from

Plastics and electric vehicles

Hexagon’s Manufacturing Intelligence division and Sumika Polymer Compounds Europe (SPC Europe), a leading manufacturer of thermoplastic compounds, announced its partnership in January 2023 to digitise the performance of new sustainable automotive-grade polypropylene (PP) compounds, thus enabling engineers from the stakeholders to recyclable design components, which will offer a lower carbon footprint for future vehicles.

Sumika Polymer Compounds’ short glass-fibre polypropylene (GF-PP) THERMOFIL HP and recycled polypropylene (GF-rPP) THERMOFIL CIRCLE materials use sustainable manufacturing and recycling processes and offer carmakers performance equivalent to incumbent engineering plastics, but with an up to 60% lower carbon footprint.

The American Chemistry Council’s (ACC) report titled, ‘Chemistry and Automobiles,’ found that on average from 2012 to 2021, the amount of plastic in automobiles increased by 16%, to 411 pounds. Calculations show those 411 pounds made up less than 10% of an average vehicle’s weight yet approximately 50% of its volume, thus significantly improving the car’s fuel efficiency, apart from reducing costs for drivers and carbon emissions from transportation.

With electric vehicles becoming more popular, plastics have emerged as an important element in the auto industry.

The article has discussed various developments in the plastics industry, all leading to one conclusion. By adopting a circular economic approach and investing in research and development, plastic, which is often considered harmful to the environment, can become a game-changer in promoting clean and sustainable industrial practices.

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