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Plastic waste management: Overview of major steps taken globally

13 December 2021

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, one among the many issues that the chemical industry faced was plastic waste management. A significant amount of plastic waste has entered the environment, creating a health hazard for humans and, more importantly, life-threatening situations for animals, particularly ocean life. A large percentage of plastic waste remains unattended, giving rise to an important situation that must be dealt with by plastic manufacturers and end users.

What is plastic waste management?

Plastic waste management is an initiative to control the amount of plastic waste in the environment by adopting circular economy and other environmental-friendly disposal solution. It aims to ban plastic products which affordable alternatives are available, encourage plastic production with circular materials, and establish high uptake of recycled plastics.

Plastic waste management is a highly complex global issue and requires collaboration among countries and communities to solve it. To date, there have already been several initiatives announced across the world to control plastic waste and minimize the impact of plastic pollution. However, in this reading, we will only go over several selected waste management steps that have a global impact.

The few major steps in plastic waste management that have been taken include:

  • Circular economy
  • Collaborations to end plastic waste
  • Environmental regulations
  • Company initiatives.

Circular economy: Repositioning plastic waste as valuable feedstock

Circular economy

This initiative was started several years ago in Europe, mainly focusing on reusing or recycling plastic waste entering earth's environment. This initiative soon reached other parts of the world and have now become an integral part of global plastic manufacturers' strategy. More than 65% of plastic waste is expected to be left unattended, either in large landfills or simply left in the natural environment, which develops to be the biggest source of plastic pollution. Currently, only 16% of plastic waste is recycled.

In a circular economy, resources are used in a more sustainable way by maintaining their use for as long as possible, thus extracting their maximum value, and then recovering and regenerating the materials at the end of their life. Under this scheme, materials are constantly cycled through the value chain for reuse, resulting in lower energy and resource consumption.

EU policy makers have issued directives mandating 50% of packaging waste to be recycled by 2025 and 55% by 2030. The agency has also announced plans to implement taxes against unrecycled plastic waste starting from January 2021.

This initiative involves companies such as the plastic products manufacturers and packaging producers to develop technologies that allow plastic to be reused after consumer usage through recycling. European companies are leading the way but producers in North America, the Middle East, and Asia are also incorporating circularity into their strategies. The American Chemistry Council has called for 100% recycling and reuse of plastics packaging by 2040.

Figure 1: Postconsumer plastic waste breakdown

Although recycling is not a new concept to the plastics industry, the infrastructure required to recycle large-scale plastic waste is still inadequate. The industry is also facing major supply and quality issues when it comes to recyclates. There have been no set standards for recyclers, thus, the market is merely downcycling plastics, creating inferior products. This industry is also underdeveloped and fragmented. A resilient collaboration among industry leaders may need to be considered in order to control plastics waste.

Collaboration among regions and companies is the key to optimize plastic waste; Europe is leading the pack

Note: Although numerous regional collaborative agencies have been established to reduce plastic waste, this figure defines the strategies that have a global impact.

Top global producers are taking steps toward reducing plastic waste

Dow

Dow is among the leading chemical companies that have taken steps toward plastic waste management. With the launch of several initiatives, the company cemented its commitment to minimize plastic waste via recycling. It announced that by 2035, it expects to enable 100% of Dow products sold into packaging applications to be reusable or recyclable.

  • In April 2021, Dow announced its collaboration with Mura Technologies on the scale-up of the pyrolysis technology, HydroPRS, at Teesside, United Kingdom (UK).
    • The first 20,000 metric tons per year (mt/y) production line is slated for start-up in 2022, with three more to follow.
  • The company is also working toward launching products made from recycled waste:
    • Launched a low-density polyethylene (LDPE) resin made with 70% recycled plastics.
    • The EQUATE Group's subsidiary Equipolymers (EQP) launched a food-grade polyethylene terephthalate (PET) product manufactured using 30% chemically recycled PET as feedstock.
  • Dow created multiple partnerships with different companies during 2019-20:
    • Dow and Siam Cement Group (SCG) announced a collaboration to develop recycling solutions to capture value from plastic waste.
    • Dow and Fuenix entered a partnership to produce a circular economy.
    • Dow and UPM Biofuels have partnered to produce plastics made with renewable feedstock.
    • Dow and Doxa Plast have partnered to produce stretch films in Sweden with renewable resources.

Badische Anilin- und Soda Fabrik (BASF)

BASF has launched a circular economy program with an aim to reuse, recycle, and refurbish various products for their entire life cycle.

  • Under its ChemCyclingTM project, BASF is working to further develop its pyrolysis technology, turning plastic waste into a secondary raw material called pyrolysis oil. The company plans to feed the oil into BASF's Verbund production at the beginning of the value chain, thereby saving on fossil resources. By using a third-party-audited mass balance approach, the share of recycled material is allocated to certain products manufactured in the Verbund site.
    • In April 2021, BASF, Quantafuel, and REMONDIS signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to evaluate a collaboration in chemical recycling, including a joint investment into a pyrolysis plant for plastic waste.
  • In June 2021, Mitsui Chemicals and BASF's Japanese subsidiary have started a collaborative study to promote chemical recycling in Japan.
  • BASF also joined the Digital Watermarks initiative "Holy Grail 2.0" for accurate sorting and high-quality recycling in May 2021. The main objective of the initiative is to increase plastic recycling rates by adding light digital watermarks to product packaging.
  • In 2020, BASF and Security Matters (SMX) Melbourne, Australia, have signed a binding joint development agreement to develop solutions for plastics traceability and circularity.

Recycling is the prime focus​ of plastic waste management

Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC)

SABIC is acting as part of its TRUCIRCLETM portfolio and services. The company plans to produce more sustainable products with circular innovations and providing its customers with safe solutions.

  • SABIC announced plans to produce pure resins from pyrolysis oil through chemical recycling by 2021.
  • SABIC announced plans to launch an initiative to manufacture certified circular polymers. The products will be manufactured by SABIC and used by its customers Unilever, Vinventions, and Walki Group for the packaging of a variety of consumer products that will be introduced into the market.
    • In April 2021, the company announced its collaboration with plastic-sheeting producer Nudec to supply SABIC's certified renewable polycarbonate resin. Nudec will manufacture clear sheeting with this resin, aimed at industries such as the building and construction, personal protection, and machinery protection sectors.
  • In March 2021, SABIC and BP PLC agreed to collaborate on the use of waste plastics as feedstock at their integrated refining and chemicals complex at Gelsenkirchen, Germany, raising the production of certified circular products.
  • In late 2020, SABIC formed a partnership with nonwovens manufacturer Fibertex for the use of recycled postconsumer polypropylene in sustainable personal hygiene products.

LyondellBasell

LyondellBasell has launched certain initiatives toward plastic waste sustainability. In its transition toward a circular economy while adding sustainable products to its portfolio, LyondellBasell has unveiled new specialty products.

  • Already known for its specialty polymers across the world, the company launched its Circulen family of recycled and renewable-based polymers in April 2021 to help brand owners improve the sustainability of their consumer products.
    • Circulen polymers are currently available in Europe, and they will soon be introduced in North America and mainland China.
  • It also announced its goal of producing and marketing 2 million metric tons per year (MMt/y) of recycled and renewable-based polymers by 2030.
  • In June 2021, LyondellBasell, Dow, and Nova Chemicals established the Closed Loop Circular Plastics Fund to invest in scalable plastics recycling technologies, equipment upgrade, and infrastructure solutions in the United States (US) and Canada through a mix of debt and equity financing.
  • In 2017, it acquired a 50% stake in Quality Circular Polymers (QCP), a Netherlands-based polymer recycler. In December 2020, LyondellBasell and Suez acquired Tivaco, a plastics recycler in Blandain, Belgium and merged it into QCP.
  • In 2020, LyondellBasell brought online a pilot facility Ferrara, Italy, based on the company's MoReTec chemical recycling technology.

ExxonMobil joins plastic recycling effort, tests advanced recycling of plastic waste in the US

Due to an increased focus on environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG), most of the oil-producing companies have raised their targets towards net-zero emissions and are doing efforts to add into this climate sustainability drive.

In March 2021, ExxonMobil, completed the initial phase of a plant trial of an advanced recycling process for converting plastic waste into raw materials for the production of polymers. The company intends to use results from the trial at existing facilities in Baytown, Texas, to scale up advanced recycling capabilities at other global facilities. ExxonMobil is targeting to establish a circular solution for converting difficult-to-recycle plastic waste into feedstocks for virgin-quality plastics. After the successful completion of the next phase of the Baytown plant trial, ExxonMobil Chemical plans to market commercial volumes of certified circular plastics later this year.

  • ExxonMobil has also partnered with Plastic Energy in France-an advanced recycling leader, to collaborate on a post-consumer plastic waste recycling project. Both the companies are planning to set-up a facility with capacity of 25,000 metric tons of plastic waste a year, converting it to raw material for circular polymers. This project is among one of the largest recycling projects in Europe.
  • ExxonMobil and Agilyx formed a joint venture, namely the Cyclyx International, to develop solutions for aggregating and preprocessing large volumes of plastic waste that can be converted into feedstocks. ExxonMobil holds a 25% equity interest in Cyclyx with Agilyx owning the remaining 75%. Cyclyx will help supply ExxonMobil's advanced recycling projects and aims to do the same for other customers.

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