The future of plastics: Biomass use critical to emissions reductions, find researchers
12 Dec 2022 --- Researchers at the University of Utrecht, Netherlands, have released an analysis projecting that CO2 emissions from the plastics sector will likely more than triple by the year 2100. The study offers three key mitigation strategies centered on bioplastics, renewable energy resources and high-quality recycling. The authors recommend several urgent changes the industry and policymakers must make to avoid increasing emissions.
PackagingInsights speaks with Dr. Paul Stegmann of the Energy & Resources group at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development about the research and how it can inform packaging industry tactics, governmental policies and the ongoing negotiations for an international UN treaty on plastic pollution.
Stegmann explains that plastics show the strongest production growth of all bulk materials and are responsible for 4.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. “If no new policies are implemented, we project a doubling of global plastic demand by 2050 and more than a tripling by 2100, with an almost equivalent increase in CO2 emissions,” states the report.
Three tactics for plastics
Stegmann explains that “basically, our three main strategies are firstly to change the resources used for plastics. We showed that plant-based plastics from biomass could even achieve negative emissions, as plants take up CO2 while growing and that CO2 is then stored in plastics that we then should keep in use for a long time via a circular economy.”
“Second, we need to make all the energy used for plastic production & recycling renewable. We showed the strong impact renewable electricity use had on the plastics sector. By additionally electrifying chemical and plastic production (for example, switching from gas boilers for heat generation to electric boilers), we could even potentially increase this effect.”
“Thirdly, we must move away from waste incineration and toward a circular economy with high-quality recycling. Circular economy strategies have the strongest emission mitigation potential in the short term. In parallel, we need to increase biomass production,” he continues.
However, the research also shows that while increasing biomass use in plastics production would reduce emissions in the long term, continued reliance on primary feedstock is still necessary.
“A circular bioeconomy approach combining recycling with higher biomass use could ultimately turn the sector into a net carbon sink while at the same time phasing out landfilling and reducing resource consumption,” according to the study.
Global policy implications
Stegmann says governments have “relatively low-hanging fruit” when building a circular economy.
“Since a CO2 price alone has a limited effect on the plastic sector, policymakers need to provide additional incentives for increasing biomass use and recycling in the plastics sector,” he says.
“This could be in the form of subsidies and quotas but would most likely also require a more targeted support of specific key steps and technologies needed for the transition toward a circular bioeconomy for plastics.”
He explains that ensuring high sustainability standards in biomass production is also key to a circular bioeconomy strategy. “This requires a sustainability certification with reliable monitoring to avoid, for example, that the biomass comes from destroyed primary forests like the Amazon.”
“These have to be adopted by all relevant countries to avoid a situation in which unsustainable biomass is entering an economy from countries with lower sustainability standards.”
Improving recycling, improving data
Stegmann says a key challenge for the plastics industry is that data collection and transparency on production and waste management are very low compared to other sectors.
“Better reporting of the flows in plastic production and waste management should be incentivized or mandated. Currently, the chemicals and plastics sector is amongst the most opaque compared to others like the steel industry,” he explains.
“Current efforts in establishing a monitoring system for the European bioeconomy also need to include indicators measuring circularity. Only with good data can we measure the success of policies and improve the research in the field.”
With this in mind, policies and research programs should focus more on product design and end-of-life strategies for bio-based products, Stegmann says.
“High-quality recycling requires clean and homogenous input streams. Incentivising deposit systems and more streamlined collection and sorting systems across regions would provide high-quality input streams to recycling in quantity needed for an economical recycling system,” he says.
“Many plastic products are inherently not recyclable. To achieve the high recycling rates of the circular bioeconomy, policy and industry thus also have to focus on product design to increase the overall recyclability of products.”
By Louis Gore-Langton
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