The shortest path to circular plastics is through chemical companies
The last decade has seen a notable increase in public awareness of the serious impact created by the dumping of plastic waste into the environment. Images of littered beaches and videos of wildlife injured by plastic pollution have provided compelling visual evidence that our single-use economy is literally wrecking our planet. Governments are starting to respond to the problem, with strategies ranging from bans on plastic products to taxes, and technologies to allow circular plastics to hit the market. Enabling this transition to a circular economy requires the cooperation of the large chemical companies that manufacture the vast majority of our plastics, and most are already on board.
It is natural to scoff at the idea that these large multinational plastics producers are at the heart of a circular future. These companies, such as Chevon Phillips Chemical, Dow and SABIC, can either trace their training directly to fossil oil companies or have significant collaborations with petroleum interests. They also used many of the same dirty tricks from the oil and gas industry: In 2020, NPR and PBS Frontline released a survey detailing the efforts of the plastics industry in the 1980s to improve the image of plastics. by embracing the now ubiquitous three-arrow recycling triangle, despite the industry’s awareness that actual recycling of plastic itself was either economically unsustainable or technically unfeasible. The parallels to the oil majors’ climate denialism, where Exxon and others have actively discouraged, hidden or obscured evidence of human-caused climate change, are obvious.
However, the drive to enable circular plastics is fundamentally different from efforts to decarbonize our energy system and phase out fossil fuels. The shift from coal, oil and natural gas to renewable energy sources represents a fundamental attack on the future of the fossil energy majors. Circular plastics, on the other hand, are quite compatible with the economic models of the chemical giants: they take a hydrocarbon feedstock and use petrochemical processes to make plastic granules. Switching from a raw material of fossil-derived hydrocarbons to a raw material derived from chemically recycled plastics is not a change at all. These businesses are not threatened by stranded assets, major business hubs or substantial facility upgrades. On the contrary, the rapidly growing demand for recycled plastic represents a business opportunity for those companies that they are keen to capitalize on. The best analogy is the Montreal Protocol, in which refrigerant manufacturers who made ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) played a pivotal role in enabling a new generation of chemicals without the same destructive impact. These companies were happy to sell a new class of refrigerants that did not damage the ozone layer because they were already selling refrigerants. The same goes for plastics manufacturers fully aligned with a future built on recycled plastics.
The proof that change is happening can be found in the public statements of these large companies. SABIC, Saudi Arabia’s national petrochemical company, already sells circular plastics on a commercial scale under the TrueCircle â¢ brand through its partnership with Plastic Energy. Construction is underway at Eastman Chemical’s
These companies are not spending hundreds of millions of dollars because they have suddenly become responsible stewards of the environment. Rather, their investments are driven by a changing regulatory and business environment that provides the economic engine necessary for these investments to be profitable. Maine recently signed an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) bill that places financial responsibility for recycling programs on producers of plastic packaging. Other states are considering minimum recycled content mandates to require the use of recycled plastics. Similar laws are under consideration in state houses across the country. In the European Union, the most ambitious and impactful program entered into force on January 1st, 2021, when the bloc implemented a tax of â¬ 0.80 per kilogram on non-recycled plastic waste.
These companies anticipate further market growth as regulatory programs are put in place. This does not make chemical companies full allies of the environmental movement, especially since some proposed policies will have an impact on their bottom line. For starters, their motivations include the continued growth in global plastic production and ever increasing rates of plastic use. For developing countries most affected by pollution and plastic waste, plastics made from recycled materials are still polluting the beach. Policies that deal with plastic pollution do not fully overlap with those that encourage recycling of plastic waste. In many cases, plastics are expected to be replaced with more environmentally friendly materials, an outcome that plastics makers will surely fight to avoid.
But eliminating plastic waste by eliminating plastics is not a reasonable or achievable goal. Plastics improve our quality of life, are physically strong, relatively inexpensive (even with the additional costs associated with circular materials), and have a wide range of uses and applications. They perform better than competing materials and will not disappear. To successfully manage the environmental impact of plastic, we must enable the circularity of plastics that will continue to be used in our modern economy. Achieving this goal does not require killing the plastic behemoths. Instead, the quickest route to circularity is theirs, despite their checkered environmental record. Government policies currently enabling an attractive economy for these early deployments must be cultivated to fully enable the circular plastic revolution.