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Transitioning to Circular Plastics in a Net Zero World

Transitioning to a plastic circular economy will encounter many challenges, from collection and infrastructure issues to increases in global consumer packaging demands

Transitioning to Circular Plastics in a Net Zero World

The transition to a plastic circular economy will not happen in a vacuum and, in many ways, will face unique challenges as the world looks to reduce its dependence on fossil-based resources and move towards net zero. Global plastic waste is set to almost triple by 2060, with around half ending up in landfill and less than a fifth recycled, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Even with revolutionary reductions in discretionary use, the ubiquitous value of plastics from both an economic and environmental perspective will continue to drive growth in demand. At the same time, mismanagement of plastics has become an existential challenge to human health and wellbeing

Successfully navigating the transition to a plastic circular economy will require a revolutionary pivot that drives unprecedented growth in infrastructure, from collection to recycling, the adoption of new business models, and critical alignment of stakeholders —all purposefully driven by effective government regulations and incentives. Circularity in the plastics economy is increasingly forming a fundamental part of policymaker and private industry plastic sustainability initiatives as an effort to transition to net-zero emissions.


Plastic Sustainability Challenge #1: Plastics Collection and Leakage Concerns

One of the biggest challenges facing the transition to a circular plastics economy is the collection challenge. According to the OECD report, plastic leakage to the environment is anticipated to double to 44 million tonnes (Mt) per year, while the build-up of plastics in lakes, rivers and oceans will more than triple. The majority of plastics pollution is generated from what is known as macroplastics, but leakage of microplastics from items such as textiles, industrial plastic pellets and tyres is also a significant factor.

Plastic sustainability will continue to suffer even with intense efforts to manage discretionary use and growing demand. Population growth, as well as improved standards of living in regions such as Africa, India and South East Asia are fundamental drivers of an increasing demand for plastic. These regions are currently characterized by low collection rates when it comes to plastic recycling, which means that a significant portion of this waste is entering the global environment through disposal into landfills and other avenues, such as global water supplies.


Plastic Sustainability Challenge #2: Deploying the Necessary Plastics Recycling Infrastructure

Closely linked with the collections challenge is the fact that much of the required infrastructure to drive a global reduction in plastic waste and increase plastic sustainability needs to be improved. Collection, sorting, processing and end-use application facilities remain, at best, inadequate and, more typically, non-existent or in the very early stages of development in the majority of countries and without harmonization across regions, which leave most of the world overwhelmed with waste volumes of all materials.

Moreover, plastics waste collection streams and systems are dispersed with low-input volumes, even in advanced economies such as the US and Western Europe. The current status quo presents a challenge in achieving economies of scale for a plastic circular economy due to significant gaps in supply and end-use demand for recycled material.

This state of affairs places significant economic pressure on current facilities and those operating them, risking long-term viability unless adequate solutions are found. As investment in plastics recycling infrastructure accelerates, it will be increasingly important for both industry stakeholders and governing bodies to assess the potential impact of associated risks, costs and emissions. Access to the right data will be pivotal to get ahead of these challenges to formulate a vision of a circular economy for plastics.


Plastic Sustainability Challenge #3: Fossil Fuel-Based Feedstock Driving Majority of Plastics Demand

The use of fossil-based feedstocks when it comes to achieving a plastic circular economy is a further challenge to note. Recent research from Chemical Market Analytics has shown that half of global chemicals demand is driven by the needs of the plastic industry. Moreover, even if plastic recycling efforts operated at 100% efficiency, fossil-based production of plastics will remain the primary source of production to meet the growing global demand for plastics.

Furthermore, recycling processes will need to offset fossil fuels in the form of energy and raw materials to support a transition to net zero. So, while a plastic circular economy will contribute to a drop in greenhouse gas emissions, for true plastic sustainability, it will be essential to incorporate plastic waste recycling as part of a holistic net zero strategy that approaches fossil fuel use reduction on multiple fronts.


Plastic Sustainability Challenge #3: Comprehensive Technological Solutions Needed to Achieve Net Zero

To drive effective change from a net-zero perspective, new technologies must be developed and deployed across the plastics value chain. This will require optimizing materials use and operations and carrying out comprehensive life cycle analyses that consider not only manufacturers of plastics polymers but also the end products. Such analyses—which should be standardized, globally aligned and carried out on a regular basis—should also bear in mind the competition that end products face against other material value chains such as glass, paper and metal, to drive materials efficiency as appropriate.

When it comes to plastics recycling technologies in particular, the two main approaches, mechanical and chemical, each come with their own advantages and drawbacks. While users of mechanical recycling technologies benefit from lower CAPEX, operating costs and emissions profiles by default, they are limited by feedstock flexibility, plastics degradation per each recycling cycle and challenges with component tracing. Chemical recycling technologies on the other hand can bypass the degradation and traceability problems and produce recycled content at a high standard every time, but these technologies have not yet been commercialized at scale. Tracking the development of the various technologies and the pace at which they are developing to make the right investment calls is key—and having the right business intelligence at your fingertips will make the difference.


Approaching a Plastic Circular Economy with Net Zero in Mind

The plastics sector is at an unprecedented inflection point. Closing the circularity gap will require an unprecedented global alignment of government policies, stakeholder values, financial support, and application of transformative technologies. Infrastructure and technology investment at scale is urgently needed to address increasing volumes of plastics waste. Until then, the “Plastics End-of-Life” situation is expected to worsen before it gets better, and plastic sustainability initiatives will continue to face challenges.

The transition to a plastic circular economy is an integral initiative within the overall goal of achieving net zero. However, to drive strategic action in this space, the industry needs to confront the serious challenges facing plastic sustainability initiatives. There needs to be more infrastructure and technology scaling solutions to meet the increasing demand for plastics recycling. A successful transition to circular plastics will require a paradigm shift from today’s inadequate curbside and commercial waste collection systems and processes.

Plastics recycling often brings increased scope 1 and 2 emissions; at the same time moving to alternative materials often results in even higher emissions and negative environmental impact. In the end each material value change will need to expend monies and expertise to achieve a net zero position; the cost to do so will in many ways redefine the competitive landscape for material.

As the market continues to evolve, access to trusted news, data and analysis on the factors influencing these variables will be fundamental in driving this shift forward. Ultimately, the plastic sustainability conundrum cannot be addressed in isolation if countries are to meet their 2050 net zero commitments—a vision of a circular economy for plastic-needs to be part of a broader sustainability strategy that addresses energy and material efficiency across the value chain to drive meaningful change.



Anthony J. Palmer
Vice President, Circular Plastics

Robin Waters
Research & Analysis Director, Circular Plastics Service

Jonny Goyal
Director, Technology and Infrastructure, Circular Plastic Services


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