China’s plastic ban and recycling launch marks end of ‘business as usual’ for plastics industry

Paradigm shifts start slowly at first, and it is easy to miss them. But then one day, they suddenly become obvious, and it becomes a scramble to catch up. That’s what happened on the waste plastic issue last week, when China decided to take action. As official news agency, Xinhua, reported:

  • “The policy measures proposed in this opinion basically cover the entire process and various links of plastic product production, circulation, use, recycling, and disposal, reflecting a system of full life cycle management
  • “Policy adjustments target both traditional areas and emerging areas such as e-commerce, express delivery, and takeaway
  • “(They focus on) plastic products that are currently in large use, relatively prominent, and strongly reflected in society, and take the lead in prohibiting or restricting production, sales, and use in some areas and regions
  • “It is important to point out that implementation will inevitably affect the production of some industries and the convenience of residents’ lives”

My former company, ICI, invented polyethylene (PE) back in 1933. PE is now the largest single polymer with volume close to 100m tonnes. More than half of this goes into single-use applications.  Yet in a major failure of the imagination, very few of us in the industry ever thought until recently about the waste this caused.  As the BBC reported after China’s decision:

“China has for years been struggling to deal with the rubbish its 1.4 billion citizens generate. The country’s largest rubbish dump – the size of around 100 football fields – is already full, 25 years ahead of schedule.”

And we are all still ignoring the economic waste involved.  Crude oil costs $60/bbl, and it costs lots more dollars to refine it/ship it/process it. And then we simply throw away the single- use plastic bags and packaging that we bring home from the shop or unwrap from the internet delivery.

Plus, of course, there is the marine waste problem, so vividly brought to life in the photo from Sir David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet 2 television series.

THE PLASTICS INDUSTRY MUST NOW TAKE UP THE CHALLENGE

China uses around 1/3rd of all the PE produced today. So its decisions are a game-changer for the entire global industry.

Nobody wants to do away with plastics themselves.  They are unique materials – lightweight, resilient, usually non-reactive and waterproof. They have much lower carbon intensity than competing materials such as metals, and they play an incredibly valuable role in our daily lives. Food packaging, for example, is proven to reduce food losses, wastage and health risks from contamination.

But the business model for producing plastics is broken, and needs to be challenged:

  • Does it really make sense to keep producing more oil and gas, with all the CO2 emissions this involves, and then throw away the end product?
  • If not, why aren’t we investing the necessary dollars to set up Resource Centres (as pictured) around our cities and towns, to recycle this waste plastic back into usable products?
  • And at the same time, why aren’t we developing robust contingency plans for optimising the legacy issues from the old business model

As I noted here a year ago, There’s a great future for the European plastics industry in recycled plastic, this opportunity is not just about China. Last month, new EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen launched the EU’s Green Deal, noting:

“I am convinced that the old growth-model that is based on fossil-fuels and pollution is out of date, and it is out of touch with our planet. The European Green Deal is our new growth strategy – it is a strategy for growth that gives more back than it takes away. And we want to really make things different. We want to be the frontrunners in climate friendly industries, in clean technologies, in green financing.”

The key issue is summed up by new BP CEO, Bernard Looney. He warned at the weekend that the oil industry has to start:

“Going beyond small, ineffectual bets on low carbon investments.”

The plastics industry similarly has to step up from today’s relatively “small, ineffectual bets”. Otherwise it will run out of time to meet the 2025 recycling deadlines being set by an increasing numbers of brand owners and governments.

All paradigm shifts create Winners and Losers.  Losers will focus on recession risks and the potential impact of the corona virus. But Winners will know they need to do more than focus on these risks, if they want to generate long-term revenue and profit growth.

They will be the ones who start investing realistic sums of money, today, to turn the concept of the circular economy into reality.

$60bn opportunity opens up for plastics industry as need to eliminate single-use packaging grows

150 businesses representing over 20% of the global plastic packaging market have now agreed to start building a circular economy for plastics with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

As a first step, Coca-Cola has revealed that it produced 3MT of plastic packaging in 2017 – equivalent to 200k bottles/minute, around 20% of the 500bn PET bottles used every year.  Altogether, Coke, Mars, Nestlé and Danone currently produce 8MT/year of plastic packaging and have now committed to:

  • Eliminate unnecessary plastic packaging and move from single-use to reusable packaging
  • Innovate to ensure 100% of plastic packaging can be easily and safely reused, recycled, or composted by 2025
  • Create a circular economy in plastic by significantly increasing the volumes of plastic reused or recycled into new packaging.

The drive behind the Foundation’s initiative is two-fold:

  • To eliminate plastic waste and pollution at its source
  • To capture the $60bn opportunity to replace fossil fuels with recycled material

Encouragingly, over 100 companies in the consumer packaging and retail sector have now committed to making 100% of their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

Perhaps even more importantly, they plan to actually use an average of 25% recycled content in plastic packaging by 2025 – 10x today’s global average.  This will create a 5MT/year demand for recycled plastic by 2025.  And clearly, many more companies are likely to join them. As I noted a year ago (Goodbye to “business as usual” model for plastics):

“The impact of the sustainability agenda and the drive towards the circular economy is becoming ever-stronger. The initial catalyst for this demand was the World Economic Forum’s 2016 report on ‘The New Plastics Economy’, which warned that on current trends, the oceans would contain more plastics than fish (by weight) by 2050 – a clearly unacceptable outcome. 2017’s BBC documentary Blue Planet 2, narrated by the legendary Sir David Attenborough, then catalysed public concern over the impact of single use plastic in packaging and other applications.”

PLASTICS INDUSTRY NOW HAS TO SOLVE THE TECHNICAL CHALLENGES

The issue now is around making this happen. It’s relatively easy for the consuming companies to issue declarations of intent. But as we note in the latest pH Report, it’s much harder for plastics producers to come up with the necessary solutions:

“The problem is that technical solutions to the issue do not currently exist. It is possible to imagine that new single-layer polymers can be developed to replace multi-layer polymer packaging, and hence become suitable for mechanical recycling. It is also possible to believe that pyrolysis technologies can be adapted to enable the introduction of chemical recycling. But the timescale for moving through the development stage in both key areas into even a phased European roll-out is very short.”

Already, however, Borealis and Indorama have begun to set targets for using recycled content. Indorama plans to increase its processing of recycled PET from 100kt today to 750kt by 2025.  And as Dow CEO Jim Fitterling said last week:

“The industry needs to tackle this ocean waste and develop ways to reuse plastics. There are no deniers out there that we have a plastics-waste issue. The challenge is that the plastics industry has developed around a linear value-chain. A line connects the hydrocarbons from the wellhead to either the environment or to landfills once consumers discard them. The discarded plastic does not re-enter the chain.

“The industry needs to adopt a circular value-chain, in which the waste is reused. For this to be successful, some kind of value needs to be attached to plastic waste. Without this, consumers have little incentive to recover plastic waste in a form that would be useful to manufacturers.”

As McKinsey’s chart shows, this is potentially a $60bn opportunity for the industry.  It is also likely, as I noted back in June, that the ‘Plastics recycling paradigm shift will create Winners and Losers‘:

“For 30 years, plastics producers have primarily focused upstream on securing cost-competitive feedstock supply. Now, almost overnight, they find themselves being forced by consumers, legislators and brand owners to refocus downstream on the sustainability agenda. It is a dramatic shift, and one which is likely to create Winners and Losers over a relatively short space of time.”

The Winners will be those companies who focus on the emerging opportunity to eliminate the physical and financial waste created by single use packaging. As the European Commission has noted, it is absurd that only 5% of the value of plastic packaging is currently retained in the EU economy after a single use, at a cost of €70bn-€105bn annually.

On a global scale, this waste is simply unaffordable, as the UN Environment Assembly confirmed on Friday when voting to “significantly reduce” the volume of single-use plastics by 2030.

The plastics industry now finds itself in the position of the chlorine industry 30 years’ ago, over the impact of CFCs on the ozone layer. The Winners will grasp the opportunity to start building a more circular economy.  The Losers will risk going out of business as their licence to operate is challenged.