Nowadays, we are all faced with an almost exhausting number of wicked global problems. However, I believe that the problem of plastic waste differs from many of these other problems in that it can be solved. We can do it together, but only if plastics simultaneously contribute to the circular economy.
Plastics are present everywhere in our daily lives – in buildings, packaging, and so many other products that make everyday life easy, such as car parts, consumer electronics, toys and clothing. Plastics are necessary, but become a problem when they are wastefully used or end up in the environment after use. The challenge, and at the same time the solution, has two stages: the manufacture and the after-treatment of plastics.
Worldwide use of plastics is expected to double in the next 20 years. Plastics production must be renewed to ensure that such growth is sustainable with regard to the environment, and particularly the climate. Neste is already able to produce bio-based plastics from renewable raw materials, mainly oils and fats derived from waste and residue sources. We are also exploring the potential for producing new plastic from plastic waste. Bio-based and recycled raw materials can help reduce the dependence on crude oil for plastics production and reduce the carbon footprint of plastic products. If we want a better environment in terms of lower-carbon emissions, major efforts should be made to increase the replacement of conventional plastics with these alternatives.
What happens to plastic products at the end of their life cycle? Progress has been made in plastic waste treatment, but not enough. Currently, only about one-third of the approximately 27 million tons of consumer plastic waste generated annually in Europe is collected for recycling. To increase recycling rate, plastics recycling must also be made economically attractive. Neste’s activities in the area of chemical recycling are aimed at precisely this.
Waste plastic must be reused
From the perspective of circular economy, leaving two-thirds of consumer plastic waste unused is simply inefficient. Mechanical recycling of plastic is a good start, but not enough.
Chemical recycling supplements mechanical recycling and enables a higher recycling rate. In chemical recycling, waste plastics are converted into raw materials for the chemicals industry. The plastic waste is liquefied, after which it can be used to replace crude oil as a raw material for fuels, chemicals and new plastics. The resulting materials are as good as those made from crude oil, but their carbon footprint is half the size.
Chemical recycling does not compete with traditional plastic recycling. It primarily uses materials unsuitable for mechanical recycling.
Chemical recycling of plastics is still very small-scale, but can quickly grow into environmentally economically significant activity. Neste’s goal is to begin industrial-scale test runs next year. And by 2030, our goal is to be processing over one million tons of waste plastics a year.
Chemical recycling is the missing piece of the plastic strategy
On 16 October 2018, a working group set up by the Ministry of the Environment in Finland announced its proposal for a Plastics Roadmap for Finland. This proposal is a list of actions that would help Finland reduce the scale and severity of the harm caused by plastic waste and littering, and accelerate plastics recovery and recycling. The European Commission has similarly proposed restrictions on the use of single-use plastics, amongst other measures.
Neste’s operations already support the goals of the proposed plastics roadmap with its chemical recycling project and production of recyclable bio-based plastics. Collection of plastic waste can also be stepped up by creating demand for plastic waste currently unsuitable for recycling by conventional methods. To function well, circular economy must also make economic sense.
Replacing crude oil with recycled plastics will reduce society’s dependence on oil and will also reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to climate change. But plastics recycling will not solve those problems by itself. Increasing the share of bio-based plastics also helps, but that too is insufficient alone. It is essential to create the proper conditions for companies to be confident about investing in future solutions. Political decision-makers play a central role here. Moving from words to action is key if we want to have a more sustainable future than the one that has been predicted. To do this, plastics must become a key part of circular economy and viewed as solutions, not problems.