U.S. Plastic Pact sets more aggressive recyclability timescale than resin producers

Some of the U.S. biggest single-use plastic users such as beverage and retail companies joined the U.S. Plastic Pact to announce on Aug. 25 they will aim for 100% plastic recyclability by 2025, five years sooner than a similar announcement by resin producers.

Image courtesy of Hans Braxmeier/Pixabay

Meantime, while organizations like Carbon Tracker see the plastics industry as a bigger carbon dioxide (CO2) polluter than oil extraction, some individual companies are acting on their own to pioneer efforts to replace fossil with renewable energy to power petrochemical plants.

“The U.S. Plastics Pact is in continued discussions with upstream material suppliers such as resin producers. The goals of the Pact are in line with the stated goals of the U.S. plastics industry, but on a more aggressive timescale,” Emily Tipaldo, executive director at U.S. Plastics Pact, said by email on Sep. 14.

"Over the next six months we’ll be developing the path, including measurable actions, for how to reach the targets set forth by the founding activators,” she added.

The U.S. Plastics Pact became the most recent plastic industry self-regulation initiative. Multiple bans and legislation worldwide against plastic bags, waste and single-use plastics have preceded these actions.

“Until recently there have been very few constraints on how you can use plastics,” Kingsmill Bond, new energy strategist at Carbon Tracker, said in a report on Sep. 4.

Plastic “releases roughly twice as much CO2 as producing a tonne of oil,” Carbon Tracker said.

“Carbon dioxide is produced at every stage of the plastic value chain, including being burnt, buried or recycled, not just extraction of oil and manufacturing,” it added.

Capacity increases 

Since 2010, the chemical industry invested $96 billion in 227 completed new or expanded facilities just in the U.S., according to the American Chemistry Council (ACC) data as of July.

Another 38 projects valued at $27 billion are under construction, while 69 projects valued at $72 billion are planned. Large part of the investment involves virgin resin.

“It’s simply delusional for the plastics industry to imagine it can double its carbon emissions at the same time as the rest of the world is trying to cut them to zero,” Carbon Tracker said.

In December 2015 197 countries signed The Paris Agreement to commit to curb CO2 emissions to reduce climate warning, with 179 ratifying it. Yet so far it has not led to any slowdown.

Atmospheric CO2 saw a record increase in 2019, rising at the same rate as in the two preceding years, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Fossil energy, used for fuel and petrochemicals, accelerated the increase, it said. The last time atmospheric CO2 was this high was three million years ago.

The U.S. Plastics Pact

British environmentalist Ellen MacArthur said in Jan. 2016 during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that research showed plastic may outweigh ocean life by 2050.

The Ellen McArthur Foundation is behind The Plastics Pact initiatives in the U.S. and other countries.

The aim is to define a list of problematic or unnecessary packaging by 2021, and take action to eliminate them by 2025.

By 2025, all plastic packaging should be 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable, and there should be actions to recycle or compost 50% of it. The average recycled content or bio-based content in plastic packaging should reach 30%.

U.S. organizations included in The Plastics Pact are the American Beverage Association with members such as The Coca-Cola Co. Other members include Unilever, and retailers like Target and Walmart.

The Plastics Pact 2025 100% recyclability goal compares with a 2030 goal announced in 2018 by the ACC Plastic Division, which groups U.S. virgin resin producers.

ACC Plastic Division members include Braskem, Celanese, Covestro, Dow, LyondellBasell, and Sasol.

About 36% of plastic is used only once while 40% ends up polluting the environment and less than 10% is recycled, according to Carbon Tracker Initiative.

The impact of Covid-19 may slow down efforts to increase recycling, an export told Reuters Events in a May interview.

Actions against virgin resin

“Plastics impose an externality cost on society of at least $1,000 per tonne, or $350 billion a year” from CO2 and noxious gases impact on health, collection costs and ocean pollution, the Carbon Tracker Initiative added.

“Policymakers in Europe and China are already taking steps to clamp down on plastics waste and have a wide range of tools they can use, from regulation and bans to taxes, targets and recycling infrastructure,” it said.

The EU proposed in July an €800/tonne tax on waste plastic, it added

In 2018 China closed down its industry for importing and processing plastic waste , the world’s largest, The Carbon Tracker Initiative said.

About 30 organizations including Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Rockefeller foundation, and the Flora Family Foundation finance The Carbon Tracker Initiative.

Using Biomass at petrochemical plants

Andreas Kicherer, director of sustainability strategy at BASF, said during a mid-July Reuters Events conference that the company has a program in place in Europe to increase the use of biomass-derived fuel, which it mixes with fossil fuel to power plants.

The system is similar to what utilities do to sell green energy by first putting all wind, solar and fossil into the grid and then allocating it proportionally to customers that pay more, he said.

Similarly, BASF replaces part of the fossil fuel used for energy to run plants with biomass-derived fuel when customers demand it, awarding certifications so end users can differentiate their products. An independent party oversees the allocation process.

Such products can be used to make diapers, paints, textiles and packaging without modifications and the process is the same as only the energy source changed.

BASF plans to go a step further with a plant in India to be solely supplied by renewable energy.

Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., Adani Group, BASF and Borealis said in Oct. 2019 they plan a $4-billion investment in a PDH/polypropylene project in India.

It would become the world’s first CO2-neutral petrochemical large plant.

By Renzo Pipoli