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08-11-2023 | Materials Technology | In the Spotlight | Article

How Plastics Could Get Rid of Fossil Raw Materials

Author: Thomas Siebel

3 min reading time

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Plastics Europe has presented a roadmap for the transformation of the plastics industry towards a circular economy and climate neutrality. The aim is to reduce the proportion of fossil-based plastics to 35% by 2050.

In collaboration with Deloitte, Plastics Europe has presented a roadmap with measures that could make the plastics industry recyclable and climate-neutral by 2050. The European association speaks for almost 100 companies that produce over 90% of the plastic produced in Europe. With the measures presented, it should be possible to reduce the proportion of fossil-based plastics by 25% by 2030 and by 65% by the middle of the century compared to today. In addition, a potential pathway is outlined to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the entire plastics system by 28% by 2030 and to net zero by 2050.

According to Plastics Europe, achieving these goals will require innovation and investment in three strategic areas. Firstly, plastics must become recyclable, secondly, life cycle emissions must be reduced to net zero and thirdly, plastics must be used sustainably. The association believes that recycling plastics is the fastest, cheapest, most effective and most reliable way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to increased reuse and less single-use of plastics, all levers should also be pulled with regard to recycling-friendly designs and the use of biomass and raw materials from carbon capture and utilization (CCU).

Greenhouse Gases to Net Zero by 2050

Today, 12% of newly produced plastic consists of recycled raw materials. According to the association, this share could grow to 65% by 2050, with mechanical recycling accounting for the largest share with a total of 15 Mt (today it is 5 Mt), ahead of chemical recycling (11 Mt), biomass-based raw materials (11 Mt) and raw materials from carbon capture and utilization (CCU) (3 MT). In addition, 12 Mt of used plastics could also be reused annually by 2050, which would at least curb the growth in new plastic production from 57 Mt today to 65 Mt.

As part of this transition, greenhouse gas emissions along the plastics life cycle should also be reduced to net zero by 2050. To achieve this, Plastics Europe believes that business models for the use of used and recycled plastics should be encouraged and the supply of biomass and CCU-based raw materials increased. The production of new plastics must also be made more energy-efficient and switched to renewable and low-carbon fuels. The electrification of production processes and the use of CCS should also be promoted.

Capture Additives and Avoid Granulate Loss

To ensure that plastics do not pose any health or environmental risks in the future, the association advocates, among other things, greater transparency and exchange along the value chain. The use of chemical additives should be better recorded and the loss of granulate in production should be avoided.

Despite considerable investment on the part of companies, the transition to a circular and low-emission economy poses challenges for plastics manufacturers, according to Plastics Europe. Deloitte estimates that a total investment of 235 billion euros will be required.

Industry and Politics are Challenged

The short-term measures that the industry needs to take include the transparent presentation of the status quo in the transformation and a closer partnership with waste management companies. In addition, plastics that are functional, affordable and recyclable should be brought onto the market. By 2030 at the latest, companies should also cooperate more closely with biomass suppliers, be able to chemically recycle on a larger scale, optimize their plants for maximum energy efficiency and use CCS technologies.

According to Plastics Europe, industry measures should be supported by a suitable legal framework. Among other things, the association is calling for an EU equivalent to the US Inflation Reduction Act, a fuel-independent codification of the mass balance approach for chemical recycling and harmonized requirements for measuring the recyclate content in a plastic. Minimum targets for recycled content should also apply to imported plastics. In addition, the recycling-friendly design of products should be promoted more strongly by politicians and measures should be introduced to increase the quality and quantity of bio-based raw materials for the plastics industry.

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