LONDON (ICIS)–Borealis is aiming to improve plastics recyclability by working with designers to achieve better recyclable materials, but a true circular economy where everything is reused comes across as “a dream”, the CEO of the Austrian polymers producer said on Monday.
Mark Garrett added that recycling has still a long way to go, but also said that talk of a complete ban on plastics is a “naive” idea because certain amount of virgin polymers will also need to be produced for certain applications.
The EU published in January its latest strategy on plastics recycling, aiming to achieve 100% recyclability of plastics by 2030, with 55% of them being actually recycled.
“A perfect circular economy is probably a dream, because there are always going to be some losses [in the system] although you can reduce those radically,” said Garrett.
“However, you can’t produce high purity polyethylene [PE] for high voltage cables [without virgin polymers], so there will always be new materials coming into the system.”
Borealis’ CEO said the company is at the forefront of recycling by waste to produce materials, arguing it had become the largest consumer of plastics recyclable waste in the largest European economy, Germany.
However, as the polymers industry still relies heavily on petrochemical feedstocks to produce materials, the focus is now also on the type of raw materials that could be used in the industry.
According to Garret, however, the use of biobased feedstock as a general rule in the polymers industry would simply not be tenable – arable land preciously needed to produce food would suffer as a consequence, putting a strain on that supply chain.
“If you think 30 years back, the big global producers of plastics were already working on renewable, land-based feedstocks. However, and I think our work at Borealis has shown this, that would not be sustainable as an alternative [to fossil fuels] as it would compete with the food chain,” he said.
“Hydrocarbons do very well: a refinery is a machine that tries to use every single molecule that comes in, and only 4% of those go to petrochemicals production. It is not like petrochemicals will save the oil industry, which is gigantic.”
Borealis’ CEO added that the company is working together with packaging designers because that is the way to improve packaging recyclability.
As the plastics industry faces the prospect of a regulatory environment that may force it to improve the recyclability of its materials, products like a bag of crisps with multiple layers – sometimes, plastic- and metal-based at once – would need to be out of circulation: they are simply unrecyclable.
“When you get these multi-layer packaging materials, they make it very difficult to recycle. You have to start at the beginning your packaging materials to be recyclable. That’s why we are working with packaging designers to create better recyclability,” concluded Garret, pictured right.
Garret’s opinion on recycling mirrors that of its competitor the European chemical major INEOS as well as some plastics producers trade groups, like the UK’s British Plastics Federation (BPF).
In interview with ICIS, a director at INEOS and the BPF director general said that, while the industry is willing to improve recyclability, recycling targets need to be realistic as not to put a burden on producers.
Both executives said, equally, that a true circular economy may be “unattainable,” in the words of BPF’s Philip Law.
ICIS will publish on Tuesday the second part of Garrett’s interview following the publication of the company’s 2017 financials earlier on Monday
Pictured: Plastic rubbish being shredded and pressed in Essen, Germany
Source: Jochen Tack/imageBROKER/REX/Shutterstock
Interview article by Jonathan Lopez
For more news and analysis on the EU’s plastics recycling policies and how they could affect the polymers and petrochemicals markets, visit the ICIS landing page