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To get ahead, plastics producers need to be running in circles

Creative Commons
A million plastic bottles are sold every minute – and many of those end up in landfill
  • Petrochemical firms are shifting to a circular-economy model for plastics
  • Saudi-owned Sabic is a pioneer of ‘made-to–be-made-again‘ polymers
  • But the region is lagging behind in bag and bottle recycling
  • Scroll to the end for Borealis’ tips for designing recyclable packaging 

The volume of plastics produced globally every year has soared over the past half century, from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to more than 300 million tonnes today.

This figure is forecast to double again over the next two decades and nearly quadruple by 2050. But synthetic polymers have one major drawback: they generally take more than a lifetime to biodegrade.

Plastic bottles, a million of which are sold every minute, can take up to 450 years to biodegrade.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, packaging accounts for a quarter of the world’s total plastics output and about 40 percent of it is sent to landfill. 

Another 14 percent is incinerated, while 32 percent ends up in the natural environment. Less than 15 percent is collected for recycling. 

Retailers and consumers are increasingly seeking to minimise waste when it comes to these products, and petrochemicals and packaging producers are finally being forced to embrace the concept of the plastic circular economy.

In order to meet sustainable development goals, the circular economy (with a “made-to-be-made-again” policy) represents a fundamental alternative to the linear economic model (“take-make-consume-dispose”).

Person, Human, Building
Circular economy: Sabic’s recycled and recyclable plastic products

Design challenge

Plastics have become central to our daily lives thanks to their versatility, durability and light weight. They’ve enabled major leaps forward in fields such as healthcare, food hygiene and transportation. 

However, they’ve mostly been designed for their functionality, not their ability to be recycled.

Challenges associated with plastics recycling have contributed to the low recovery rates. Packaging often combines multiple materials and different polymer types, which cannot easily be separated, while labels and glues can contaminate waste streams. 

For a long time, China used to accept most of the developed world’s recovered plastics, enabling countries to hit unambitious recycling targets without needing to consider the processes involved. 

However, in January 2018, Beijing banned imports of used plastic and other low-grade waste. 

Many governments have since strengthened legislation to address plastic waste. The European Union, for instance, has stipulated that all plastic packaging must be reusable or recyclable by 2030, and should contain 55 percent recycled content. 

Petrochemicals producers and packaging suppliers have had to take note, including those in the Middle East.

Sabic’s first commercial-scale advanced recycling unit is due to become operational this year 

Exports and research and development

The GCC produces about 28 million tonnes of polymers each year, around 85 percent of which are exported outside the region.

The title of the most recent Gulf Petrochemicals & Chemicals Association conference – Plastics Reimagined: A Circular Future Awaits – illustrates how the conversation is moving forward in the region.

The GPCA did not put forward a representative for an interview when contacted by AGBI. However, in a press release after the conference, which was held in Riyadh in May, the secretary-general Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun acknowledged the industry’s responsibilities.

“The GPCA believes that the transition to a circular economy will require designing new products that are easier to reuse and recycle, as well as adopting new business models and service offerings. 

“Furthermore, the industry must promote recycling and the reuse of plastic products. Greater collaboration, investing in research and innovation and adopting a life cycle approach will also be needed to enact change in the plastics circular economy in the region.”

Sabic is a global leader

Sabic, the petrochemicals company 70 percent owned by Saudi Aramco that took over GE Plastics in 2007, has emerged as a global leader in plastics recycling. 

It has been working closely with big brands such as Estée Lauder, Unilever, Tesco and Mars to meet demand for more sustainable packaging at its research and development laboratory and circular plastics pilot unit in the Netherlands. 

Consequently, Sabic has developed its trademarked Trucircle portfolio, which includes both mechanically and chemically recycled plastic products; and its first commercial-scale advanced recycling unit is due to become operational later this year. 

Developed in joint venture with Spain’s Plastic Energy, the Dutch facility will process up to 20,000 tonnes of hard-to-recycle (mixed, multi-layer or low-density) plastics.

It uses thermal anaerobic conversion technology to pyrolyse the material, creating a recycled hydrocarbon oil that Sabic will use to make certified circular polymers.

Innovation and collaboration are key to closing the loop on plastics, and Sabic says consumers, retailers, recyclers and manufacturers must all cooperate for the circular economy to work.

Austria’s Borealis, which is 25 percent owned by Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), meanwhile, has become a global pioneer for the mechanical recycling of plastics. 

It began acquiring and investing in European plastics recyclers back in 2016, becoming the first chemical company to enter the field, and now advocates designing packaging for its recyclability.  

Despite this progress, recycling in general and plastics recycling specifically remains limited in the GCC. 

Early efforts by Horizon Technologies to develop a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle recycling industry in Fujairah ended in failure in 2012 due to logistical and supply problems.

A new PET recycling plant was opened in Abu Dhabi earlier this year by DGrade, a sustainable clothing manufacturer.

Save wildlife: Some 32 percent of plastic packaging ends up in the natural environment

Industry sees impediments in the Gulf

The GPCA has identified a number of impediments to achieving a circular economy in the region.

Chief among them are an uncompetitive recycled plastics market, inadequate knowledge about the circular economy, high investment requirements, the high cost of products made in a circular economy model, unfavourable regulations, the complex international supply chain of the plastics industry, and a lack of collaboration between stakeholders.

AGBI asked ADNOC whether it had any plans to invest in plastics recycling in the region.

A spokesman replied: “We regularly evaluate new opportunities for value creation and will update the market accordingly as and when decisions are made.”

According to the World Economic Forum, $120 billion is lost through plastic waste each year, and adopting a circular economy could yield some $4.5 trillion in benefits up to 2030. 

A circular economy for plastics involves redesigning plastics and packaging to be more recyclable and to enable recycled materials to be incorporated safely into new products. 

This might mean substituting out polymer types that are difficult or dangerous to recycle, developing new additives to improve the recyclability of incompatible resins and innovating to make water-soluble label glues. 

A fully circular economy would also address the sustainability of the fuel used to produce plastics and would incentivise businesses to invest in waste management and recycling infrastructure.

Plastic bottles can take up to 450 years to biodegrade

Region needs to catch up

No environmental challenge will ever be solved by waiting for the right business opportunity to come along. It takes a combination of political will, incentives, multi-stakeholder collaboration and action. 

Borealis says the shift towards a circular economy can be accelerated with extended producer responsibility schemes and levies on non-recycled packaging. 

The UAE, which will host COP28, the UN climate change conference, next year, uses four times the global average number of plastic bags per capita. 

This summer, Abu Dhabi imposed a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags and launched an incentive-based bottle return scheme, while Dubai introduced a symbolic charge on plastic bags. 

These initiatives are a step in the right direction, but a culture of recycling, essential for a successful circular economy, remains a long way off; the region has a lot of catching up to do.

Chopped fruit in plastic packaging. Many consumers and retailers are looking to minimise waste

The Borealis code of conduct for designing recyclable packaging

1 Use polyethylene or polypropylene whenever possible to form a mono-material flexible or rigid packaging body. Mono-materials are more easily recyclable than multi-layer, multi-material packaging. 

2 Use transparent, clear or white, for the main body of the pack. With existing technologies, it is difficult, costly and sometimes impossible for recyclers to remove pigments from the pack body. 

3 Design the package in such a way that it can be fully emptied after use. 

4 Use compatible and separable combinations of polymer types, barrier layers, dyes and adhesives. Minimising incompatibilities produces a recyclate with better properties and therefore more suitable for a second life in consumer goods packaging. 

5 Use aluminium foil as a barrier layer only when it can be easily separated from the pack for aluminium recycling. 

6 Follow specific density guidelines when selecting pack components, including labels, sleeves and metallisation. In the recycling process polyolefins are sorted by density in a water-based float sink system. 

7 Design labels, sleeves and other on-pack printing in such a way that they can be easily separated from the main pack body. For both polyethylene and polypropylene packs, use the same polymer and same colour for the entire pack – body, caps, closures and labels. 

8 Use as little surface space as possible for printing or labelling on the pack. 

9 Use light-coloured, non-gassing inks for essential on-pack information. 

10 Ensure that when paper is designed in combination with plastics on a single pack, it must be separable and separated from the main plastic body by the end user in order to access the contents.

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