Nature and Biodiversity

When it comes to decarbonising plastics, 2050 is closer than it seems

A man holds a tray with recycled material including plastics in a factory in Guimaraes, Portugal, February 24, 2023.

The decarbonisation of plastics is a critical front in the fight against climate change. Image: REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

Lucrèce Foufopoulos
Executive Vice President, Polyolefins, Circular Economy, and Innovation & Technology, Borealis AG; and Vice President, Plastics Europe
Prof. Martin R. Stuchtey
Founder, The Landbanking Group; Founder, SYSTEMIQ
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Future of the Environment

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • To meet ambitious net-zero targets and net-positive aspirations, the plastics industry will rely on three key factors: speed, people and policy.
  • Plastics producers in Europe are committed to the transition, but much will depend on staying the course through current macroeconomic headwinds.
  • But achieving these goals will ultimately form a competitive advantage for Europe and will mean significant progress in the fight against climate change.

Plastics producers in Europe are committed to the net-zero transition, but much will depend on staying the course through current macroeconomic headwinds.

Geopolitical instability and the inflation-driven weakening of the macroeconomic environment are creating a great deal of anxiety for households, companies and countries across the globe. At the same time, climate is both the dominant risk and primary driver of change in the world today.

Due to the ubiquity of plastics and their current level of carbon intensity, the plastics industry provides a cautionary tale of how linear consumption models undermine Earth’s limits. Despite today’s challenging business climate, the next three to five years will be critical in determining whether the plastics industry can decarbonise by the middle of the century.

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Recycling and the roadmap to a circular economy

Across Europe, only 14% of plastic waste is recycled at present, and only 2% is “effectively recycled,” meaning it is converted back into materials suitable for high value applications.

A circular economy, in which high quality plastic products are kept in circulation for a number of lifetimes in an eco-efficient way, is the solution.

Meaningful progress towards plastics and carbon circularity depends on creating actionable roadmaps towards climate neutrality. To develop such a roadmap, a group of close to 100 companies across the plastics industry value chain engaged with NGOs and leading sustainability consultants.

They called for a range of complementary solutions, deployed in a distinct hierarchy. This “cascading” portfolio includes various recycling technologies, alternative base inputs — feedstock — for “virgin-quality” plastics products, as well as new business models and product design principles to increase recyclability.

These alternative feedstocks are the “ABCs”.

A: Atmospheric carbon impact reduction via direct carbon capture.

B: Biomass as a feedstock.

C: Circular carbon from recycled feedstocks to increase the lifetime of manufactured resources, which ensures any carbon stored in products is not wasted.

A new, sustainable approach to plastic waste requires significant changes to current processes.
A new, sustainable approach to plastic waste requires significant changes to current processes. Image: Systemiq

2050 is breathtakingly close

Material circularity provides the majority of carbon emissions abatement potential. By 2050, a reduction of 65% of the emissions generated by the European industry today can be achieved, utilising methods such as reuse and design for recycling as well as mechanical and chemical recycling.

The remaining emissions reduction potential is expected to come from decarbonising the production of virgin plastic materials themselves. The use of renewable sources of power, as well as green hydrogen, are key factors.

Because of long capital lock-in periods, in some cases exceeding 40 years, investments made in recycling facilities, incinerators and crackers over the next five years will be with us decades from now. Additionally, the industry must factor in retrofitting capabilities during the investment decision-making phase. Furthermore, innovation lifecycles can be long. What is experimented on in the lab today may only pay climate dividends on the outer years of the transition process.

We must realise that growth in climate-neutral production processes and product adoption, as well as technological development, will follow an exponential, not a linear, curve. Accordingly, any implementation delays now will shift the critical mass of the curve beyond the 2050 goal. That is why 2050, contrary to the often-heard assumption, is not far away — in fact, it is breathtakingly close.

Plastics and energy

The decarbonisation activities of the plastics industry have significant knock-on effects on downstream industries that encompass virtually every manufactured good in the world. Beyond that, the plastics industry could ultimately become a carbon sink for other industries by capturing and reprocessing carbon generated during industrial processes.

The degree to which we will succeed on our journey has direct implications for the European Union. To ensure Europe’s energy and resource security, net-zero primary energy and resource circularity are the only viable way forward.

Speed, people and policy

To get to net-zero, three factors are key: speed, people and policy. First, the plastics industry, its customers and policy makers must act with an urgency that matches the gravity of the situation. Second, the industry needs to attract the brightest and most creative engineers who desire to make a lasting impact on the transition to a more sustainable future.

Third, there is a clear need for increased dialogue between industry and policy makers. The joint goal must be to create an enabling environment which favours investment in the required infrastructure and innovation, and this must be done while securing the competitiveness of the European industry.

Of course, setting targets — especially lofty ones — is easy. This is in even more true if the “bill” is due decades from now, at a time when those who underwrote such commitments will no longer be at the helm.

To avoid the resulting moral hazard, we must continually monitor our progress. Our 2050 climate neutrality commitments are not a “bullet” loan in which the entire principal only comes due at the end of the term. Rather, companies must stick to a prescribed “amortisation” schedule and “refinance” their commitments every few years — that is to say, they must meet their interim targets.

Despite the scale of the challenge, there are two clear reasons for optimism: first, the plastics industry is highly collaborative. This allows the industry and its customers to leverage distinct knowledge and expertise in co-developing solutions. Second, the promise and potential of the European Green Deal, if executed soundly, is that of a catalyst that can help transition Europe towards circular models that form a competitive advantage in the coming era of scarcity.

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