It seems like there is a never-ending deluge of negativity about plastics in the media. Yet for all the valid and important points being made about the environmental impacts of plastics, the most important question is all too often missed: can plastics be replaced?
Ending plastic use is not an environmental panacea – indeed, it could lead to greater harm – and changing how we use them is not as straightforward as some commentators would like you to believe.
While it’s clear that plastics are not the enemy, we need to face reality: firstly, the materials we use in the future will need to sustainable and secondly, we need to overcome legitimate challenges that plastics are causing today. In my mind it is also clear that this change will be led by companies, big and small, as they seek to manage their impacts on the environment – and as they seek to ensure a long-term commercial standing for their businesses.
It is entirely possible to find sustainable replacements for plastic products and packaging – and it doesn’t need to undermine existing commercial models. However, given the wealth of different plastics, all with different fundamental traits and properties, too often the response I hear back is that the bottleneck is simply finding the right solution to meet a particular problem.
It means developing alternatives plastics alone cannot be the solution. We must also create a framework to allow organisations to find appropriate alternatives. One solution we’ve explored at Pöyry, has been to develop our own substitution methodology. We built a database and a set of tools that reflect the various applications of fossil plastics and the available bio-based plastics and fibre-based materials. Using this, we can sort through the wealth of substitution options to find the right one for any particular end use scenario, whether that is in industry or consumer products.
Companies that make the switch are finding that using more sustainable substitutes helps them overcome reputational challenges, drive customer preference, and get ahead of their competition.
With all that said, substitution won’t solve the problems we already face with unsustainable plastics – but here too there are commercial solutions. Plastic is valuable, even as waste. We spend money in drilling for oil and producing plastics and then, after use, we quite literally throw it away or burn it. All plastics products and packaging are in fact valuable raw materials and should be treated as such even after use.
This can be done through recycling – in theory, everything can be recycled, it is just a matter of will – or through pyrolysis. Pyrolysis and thermochemical treatment of waste materials can turn them into hydrocarbons, which are a good reusable raw material, for example new plastics production. Thus, the construction of pyrolysis capacity and conversion of incineration units to pyrolysis is something worth considering. Traditional oil refineries need converting into bio-based hydrocarbon producing and plastics recycling unitsor they will become obsolete.
It is perhaps an unexpected truth that plastics are a good form of storage for carbon dioxide (CO2). In fact, the more bio-based plastics or other products we produce, the more CO2 we absorb from the atmosphere.
Creating a sustainable materials economy
A sustainable plastics future is possible, and businesses will be at the heart of championing it. We must seek to substitute our existing plastics for sustainable alternatives and ensure that plastics that exist can be recycled and reused.
The plastics economy can be completely transformed. Replacing the crude oil (and shale) with bio-based hydrocarbons in plastics production is possible. We can invest into chemically recycling of plastics and bio-based raw materials in new or modified assets. When we ensure the materials are recycled and leakage to the environment (for example excess heat or littering) is minimised the new circular economy starts to take over and almost roll forward on its own.
Tomi Nyman is an experienced business leader in the field of service business, consumer and B2B business, bioplastics and specialty chemicals, and renewable and sustainable development. Nyman has over 15 years of experience in the chemicals and plastics industry in various roles. Prior to joining Poyry’s Finnish practice in 2018, Nyman spent almost 5 years at Neste heading their bioplastics and biochemical development programs.