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A plan for plastics: Why flexible solutions are needed to achieve Net Zero

Of all the industries needing to achieve Net Zero, the plastics industry is the most visible to consumers. Whether it’s a well-known soda, a bottle of shampoo or a container full of takeaway, plastics are a fundamental part of everyday life. Despite having only been in widespread use for just over 60 years, plastics are globally ubiquitous thanks to being relatively cheap to produce, light yet strong, versatile and sanitary. Production continues to ramp up, with one whitepaper1 noting: “The production and use of plastics has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, and is expected to double again over the next 20 years, and quadruple by the early 2050s.”

Over 50% of all plastics ever produced have been made since 2000 1

A linear lifecycle...

There’s no doubt that creating a sustainable, environmentally-friendly plastics industry is the most complex problem to solve. The issue for plastics has always been its linear lifecycle – a process that is problematic from start to finish. Firstly, because plastics are petrochemicals created from processing non-renewable fossil fuels, the raw materials have to be extracted. Secondly, the processing itself “…emits massive amounts of greenhouse gases. Petrochemicals… are responsible for up to 2% of global emissions, the equivalent of all aviation2”.  Thirdly, because plastics are invariably single use, consumers usually end up tossing the item away when its finished with. Which leads to the final environmental problem: plastics usually end up in landfill. A World Economic Forum blog suggests that “Between 1950 and 2015, a whopping 80% of plastic waste ended up in landfills or in the environment. 3

...when circular is needed

“The way out of the dead end is a system change – ditching the linear economy for the circular economy”, says the World Economic Forum3. It foresees a solution that involves plastics being made from renewable sources. The WEF suggests that extracting carbon – the building block of plastics – from renewable raw materials such as waste, biomass and even C02 is not only desirable but possible. It quotes a team of international scientists whose research shows that “a combination of biomass, C02 and recycled waste (with an effective recycling rate of 70%) can be used to produce plastic with net-zero emissions.”

Making advances in plastics recycling

Here in Australia, a recently released report4 by the CSIRO and Chemistry Australia considers the advanced recycling technologies available to address plastic waste. CSIRO’s Sarah King says the report looks at how “advanced recycling technologies can be implemented to recycle a range of plastic wastes which currently can’t be recycled… and evaluates pathways to convert plastic waste into new resources to build Australia’s circular economy and to divert waste from landfill.” The report highlights three major areas of interest:

  • Advanced recycling will increase Australia’s recovery of plastics – currently only at 11%
  • It will generate markets for products in Australia, including monomers, recycled polymers and fuels
  • Australia has the critical elements needed to adopt advanced recycling for plastic waste

Only 15% of plastic produced is recycled annually 3

The case for de-carbonisation

There are any number of reasons for the plastics industry and associated manufacturers to become more sustainable. Here are just five.

1. Regulations will get tougher: Carbon emissions regulations are only going one way: more stringent. The European Green Deal, for example, not only looks to achieve 50-55% emissions reduction and 100% recycling for plastic packaging by 2030, but also proposes a ‘Plastic Tax’.

3. Reduce operational costs: Taking action in the form of an Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) policy, for example, is not only about showcasing your company’s green credentials: it can provide real dollar value, too. As this McKinsey6 article highlights: “3M has saved $2.2 billion since introducing its “pollution prevention pays” (3Ps) program, in 1975… by reformulating products, improving manufacturing processes, redesigning equipment, and recycling and reusing waste from production.”

3. Help drive a circular economy: this will go a long way to reducing carbon emissions. As this whitepaper1 noted: “It should already be a crucial part in the initial product design and development process. By focusing on optimising value chain and production processes, as well as adopting a 3R “reuse, reduce, recycle” approach, you can become more sustainable.”

4. Respond to growing consumer and investor demands: Consumers have long been green-savvy. An article in the Harvard Business Review notes that “50% of US consumer packaged goods’ growth from 2013-2018 came from sustainability-marketed products” while “products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that were not.” Meanwhile, investors are more and more attracted by sustainable investment opportunities, a market that has now reached “$30 trillion6”.  

$30 trillion - global sustainable investment market

5. Switch to renewables: Analyse your whole operation to reduce your business’ energy, water and waste. Consider your whole value and supply chain and put in place a viable emissions reduction plan. A plan that should consider swapping traditional carbon-intensive energy sources to renewables – solar, wind, battery, hydro – to drive all areas of your business.  

Act now to make an impact tomorrow

Energy Action has helped thousands of businesses across multiple industries make the transition to sustainability and achieve Net Zero. (We achieved Net Zero ourselves this year.) Energy Action’s services include:

Solar auctions: Through our solar auction platform you can quickly and easily get the right solar solution, at the best possible price, and select the right purchasing method for you. Installing solar will save your business considerable sums while lowering your emissions and reducing dependency on the grid.

Net Zero transition: Energy Action has a proven five step process to help your business make the transition to Net Zero:

STEP 1: Measure your usage and emissions: you can’t improve what you don’t measure.

STEP 2: Lower your costs: use the measured data to establish areas for improvement.

STEP 3: Consider your emission reduction options: match your appetite for renewables to your budget and timeline.

STEP 4: Procure at least-cost: let energy retailers, renewable energy producers and/or installers compete to win your business.

STEP 5: Manage: from contract fulfilment to certification management.

For more information on how we can help your metal foundry business achieve its Net Zero goals, contact us today.

Sources:

1. Sustainability in Manufacturing: Why the Plastics Industry Should go Net-Zero. Whitepaper: .planetly  by OneTrust

2. Bloomberg Asia: Net-Zero Plastic Is Possible by 2050 With Massive Investment. Leslie Kaufman, May 24, 2022.

3. World Economic Forum, Davos Agenda 2022: It’s time to shift to net-zero emissions plastics. January 14, 2022.

4. CSIRO: Advanced recycling technologies to address Australia’s plastic waste. 25 August, 2021.

5. Plastic Energy Sustainability Report.  August, 2021.

6. McKinsey: Five ways that ESG creates value. 14 November, 2019

7. Harvard Business Review. Sustainable Business Practices: Research: Actually, Consumers Do Buy Sustainable Products. Tensie Whelan and Randi Kronthal-Sacco. June 19, 2019.

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