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Recycling an Essential Tool of Plastics Solutions—Part 1

March 9, 2021

Today’s blog is the first in a two-part series focusing on solutions to plastic waste. The first part focuses on a recent report from Carbon Tracker, a “think tank that carries out in-depth analysis on the impact of the energy transition on capital markets and the potential investment in high-cost, carbon-intensive fossil fuels.”

During the pandemic summer of 2020, Pew Charitable Trusts published an influential study entitled Breaking the Plastic Wave, which, according to the nongovernmental organization (NGO), “shows that we can cut annual flows of plastic into the ocean by about 80% in the next 20 years by applying existing solutions and technologies.” Of especial note for the recycling community is the inclusion of recycling among the technologies already available:

  • Expand reuse and refillable options to decrease reliance on new plastic production;
  • Design recycling-friendly products;
  • Improve waste collection in middle- and low-income countries; and
  • Increase mechanical recycling.

“An ambitious recycling strategy, for example, with scale-up of collection, sorting, and recycling infrastructure, coupled with design for recycling, reduces 2040 leakage (into the environment) by 38 per cent…above 2016 levels,” the report states.

In the aftermath of the Pew report, the UK-based NGO Carbon Tracker published an analysis of the economic effects of Pew’s solutions to the plastics crisis on fossil fuel industries. The analysis, entitled The Future’s not in Plastics, echoes Pew’s finding that virgin plastic demand growth could be reduced to less than one percent, with a final peak as soon as 2027.

What are the implications of a transition from linear to circular production of plastics for fossil fuel companies? Already, international emphasis on greenhouse gas reductions, coupled with the decrease in oil and gas usage in the transportation industries, has forced fossil fuel companies to forecast all of their economic growth on the production of virgin plastics.

 A carbon budget consistent with a 2°C target “would render the vast majority of reserves ‘stranded’ — oil, gas and coal that will be literally unburnable without expensive carbon capture technology, which itself alters fossil fuel economics,” according to Mark Carney, chair of the Financial Stability Board Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures.

“Plastics make up all the expected growth in oil for petrochemicals, and are the largest driver of expected oil demand, with 95% and 45% of oil demand growth in the central forecasts of BP and the IEA,” Carbon Tracker reports. However, the report continues, “If demand for virgin plastic stops rising, the oil industry would lose its primary growth driver. This makes it more likely that 2019 was peak oil demand.”

Amid such profound uncertainty, the petrochemical industry “plans to expand supply for virgin plastics use by a quarter at a cost of at least $400 billion in the next 5 years, risking huge losses for investors.” The expansion occurs despite “an externality cost on society of at least $1,000 per tonne, or $350 billion a year, from emitting carbon dioxide, associated health costs from noxious gases, collection costs and the alarming growth in ocean pollution.”

Again echoing the Pew report, Carbon Tracker found that recycling—especially open loop mechanical recycling—will play an important role in bringing about peak demand—and subsequent reduction in demand—for virgin plastics as soon as possible. Opportunities for increasing the value of the recycling system include:

  • increasing demand for recycled plastics by setting targets;
  • increasing the value of recyclates through design;
  • increasing the recycling infrastructure size; and
  • forcing changes in design.

“You can have all the functionality of plastics but at half the capital cost, half the amount of feedstock, 700,000 additional jobs and 80% less plastic pollution,” said Yoni Shiran, lead author of Breaking the Plastic Wave.

Next: in Break the Waste Cycle, US Public Interest Group examines the potential role of producer responsibility programs in decreasing the volume of waste streams while manufacturing more environmentally friendly products.

By Robert Kropp, NERC Office Manager

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