The huge amount of plastic waste – 250 million tonnes – that we produce every year has become broadly recognised as one of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. 2016 Netflix documentary A Plastic Ocean highlighted the devastating effects of plastic on the world’s oceans, and in response to the issue consumers and politicians have increased their efforts to establish a circular plastic economy.
Yet, there’s a long way to go. As it stands, just 16% of plastic is recycled or reused. What’s more, plastic production is currently responsible for around 2% of global carbon emissions.
What exactly is plastic?
The term “plastic” is a catch-all phrase, loosely describing any one of a huge range of organic polymers (chains of smaller molecules). The chemical composition of these polymers, the additives they contain and even the way in which they are shaped all affect how they can be recycled.
For example, plastic shopping bags are generally made of low-density polyethylene, while the camera lens in your mobile phone is likely to be made of polycarbonate – a very different kind of plastic. The wide range of types of plastic means there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to plastic recycling.
Why is plastic such a problem?
Plastic is ubiquitous in our lives. It’s used in a huge range of products, including houses, vehicles, electrical equipment, packaging and many more. Because of its variety of uses it’s difficult to imagine how we could live without it.
Unfortunately, plastic is also ubiquitous across the planet – including where we certainly don’t want to find it. Plastic waste can be found everywhere, from city streets to deep in the countryside. Perhaps most worryingly, there’s a huge amount of plastic waste to be found in the oceans, carried there by the world’s rivers, into which it has been dumped. The well-known Great Pacific Garbage Patch – the biggest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world – covers an area three times the size of France and contains an estimated 80,000 tonnes of plastic.
Much of the plastic in the oceans is toxic for marine life such as sea turtles and has been shown to choke seabirds and even whales. It’s also bad news for humans. Many plastic items are never fully broken down – they just get smaller and smaller, so they’re ingested by animals, which in turn end up on people’s plates. The effects of ingesting plastics on our health are as yet unclear. What’s more, because they’re so difficult to break down, many plastic items will stay in the ocean for hundreds of years.
According to estimates, more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the 1950s, around 60% of which has either ended up in a landfill or the natural environment.
Bio doesn’t always mean beneficial
Most plastics are produced from petrochemicals based on oil or natural gas, but some – bio-based plastics – are made in whole or partially from renewable biomass sources, such as corn or woodchips. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good for the environment. Bio-based plastics are not always biodegradable. What’s more, bio-based plastics made from food sources such as corn or sugar could put significant strain on the world’s land resources.
What can be done?
Plastics play an integral role in our everyday lives and cannot simply be phased out. Every year, 47kg of plastics are produced for every person on the planet, and they have very important end uses from an environmental perspective, such as keeping food fresh and hence reducing food waste, to helping lightweight transportation and hence reducing carbon emissions. However, their use can be reduced, and governments from around the world are seeking to do just that. For example:
- China, the world’s biggest generator of plastic waste, recently published a new five-year plan to reduce plastic pollution. The plan includes measures and targets to cut the production and use of plastics, promote bio-based and degradable alternatives, improve recycling and reduce the amount of plastic sent to landfill.
- The EU has set targets of recycling 50% of plastic packaging by 2025 and 55% by 2030. Currently, it’s around 42%. It also implemented a tax of EUR 0.80 per kilogram of non-recycled plastic packaging at the start of 2021.
- Seventeen out of 50 US states have introduced at least one regulation related to plastic recycling.
- India is introducing a ban on single-use plastic products by July 2022.
But it’s not just governments that are getting involved – many companies are also taking steps to reduce single-use plastics and increase recycled content in their packaging. Over 500 firms, including Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever, have signed up to an initiative stating that 100% of plastic packaging should be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
The importance of recycling
We don’t believe the world can suddenly stop using plastic, or that bioplastics will be the immediate, or even ultimate, solution. Unlike UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who recently stated that recycling plastic materials “doesn’t work” in the run-up to COP26, we view recycling as a hugely important part of the solution to the plastic waste problem.
Below we outline some of the key recycling technologies that we believe will play an increasing role in the world’s attempts to reduce plastic waste and carbon emissions from plastic production.
- Mechanical recycling: the vast majority of plastic recycling today is mechanical, but it is currently only really used for two types of plastic – PET and HDPE – which make up just 37% of all plastic waste. Mechanical recycling involves the production of recycled plastic from an initial waste plastic stream.
- Chemical recycling: this involves a variety of chemical, thermal or catalytic processes that break down the structure of the waste plastic to produce a range of end-products.
- Depolymerisation: reversing the polymerisation process through a chemical reaction, turning the waste plastic into its precursor molecules (monomers), which can then be made into plastics again. Depolymerisation can only be applied to PET, polyamides and polyurethanes.
- Pyrolysis: waste plastics are broken down into a range of basic hydrocarbons by heating the waste stream in the absence of oxygen. The end-products can be used to make new plastics. This process does not need to use a single kind of waste plastic, and can handle impurities and additives in the waste stream.
- Gasification: waste plastics are heated to a very high temperature in the presence of a limited amount of oxygen. The resultant gases can then be used to produce a variety of chemicals such as methanol, ammonia, hydrocarbons and acetic acid. This process can be applied to any plastics.
- Hydrothermal treatment: uses water at high pressures and temperatures to break down waste plastics. This process is useful for treating carbon-fibre-reinforced plastics and printed circuit boards.
Because of the enormous problems that plastic waste is causing the environment, there’s an urgent need to increase recycling capabilities. In fact, some reports suggest that 60% of all plastic will be recycled by 2050 – representing a huge potential growth opportunity for companies involved in the supply chain.
BNP Paribas Asset Management’s Environmental Strategies Group uses its in-depth knowledge and understanding of plastic recycling to identify companies with cutting-edge technologies that could be set to transform the world’s approach to plastics and, in doing so, provide strong return potential to our investors.