The plastic puzzle: from problem to opportunity

3-10-2022 | News

More and more indispensable for its characteristics of economy, lightness and versatility, plastic has a strong environmental impact, if not properly produced and then disposed of. But innovative solutions are emerging to benefit from its advantages and remedy the pollution.

Present virtually everywhere, plastic generates mixed feelings among consumers, first loved then hated, from useful to harmful; sometimes cheap and sometimes expensive. From experience we know that it is all these things at the same time, but unfortunately it is also a determining factor pollution world, if it is not adequately managed in its life cycle, and especially in that of disposal.

Plastic materials are increasingly common on the ground and in the sea, but they are also increasing their presence in the atmosphere in the form of hardly perceptible particles. While this is a major problem on the one hand, it can become an opportunity on the other.

In the modern economy, plastic plays a role indispensable is ubiquitous and, in all likelihood, it is the most material versatile in terms of applications. The secret of its success is unparalleled functionality - in numerous sectors such as construction, transportation, healthcare and electronics - at relatively low production costs.

However, although the costs are low in the construction phase, those related to its life cycle are very high. A WWF report indicates that pollution, emissions and cleaning costs associated with plastics in 2019 amounted to at least 3.7 trillion dollars, a figure higher than India's GDP and much higher than the market cost. Equally pressing are the challenges posed by the short useful life of plastic wrappers and packaging (just six months), in stark contrast to the decades, or even centuries, that it takes for the decomposition process of disposable waste dispersed into the environment.

Plastic and the circular economy

More than forty years after the introduction of the first universal symbol that indicates recyclable products, the plastic recycling rate it could be much higher. Currently the recovery with respect to paper (58%) and iron and steel (70–90%), the recycling of plastic in general, and especially of plastic packaging, is still in its infancy. Only 14% of these, in fact, is collected for recycling. Consequently, a circular economy of plastics will contribute to the creation of a healthier and more regenerative system, in which plastics are reused and recycled. By respecting three simple rules, "eliminate, innovate and put back into circulation", the reduction of plastic waste of the 80% and a cut in the greenhouse gas emissions of the 20% will be favored over the next twenty years, 700,000 new jobs will be created and 200 billion will be saved every year.

A well-underway process would also make it possible to more rapidly decouple the production of plastic from non-renewable energy sources. The 98% of the disposable one produced every year is in fact made from fossil fuels. Over the next few decades, the request of Petroleum for plastic production it should increase further: growth of 3.8% is estimated until 2030, and then by 3.5% until 2050, a rate higher than that of overall demand, which should rise by just 0.5% per year.

Damage to the environment

Although plastic is a versatile and cost-effective product that justifies its application in different sectors in a consistent way, the impact of the pollution it causes on the environment is devastating. Estimates show that marine litter currently consists of plastic for 85% and that by 2050 the global weight of plastic in the oceans will exceed that of fish. Our studies indicate that since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, about 8.4 million tons of face masks, gloves and other plastic waste produced by 193 countries.

In light of these alarming scenarios, reducing the harmful effects of plastics and putting in place recycling systems are crucial steps for a more rigorous approach to protecting the planet. The relevance of disposable plastics increases when we consider that globally a quarter of plastic waste ends up in the incinerators and the 40% in landfills. These are precious resources that “evaporate”, in the true sense of the word.

In any case, not all methods of recycling this material, however motivated by the best intentions, are good for the environment. We think in particular of the "wishcycling”, Defined by the Collins English Dictionary as“ the practice of throwing something in a bin without first making sure that it is actually recyclable ”. In this regard, a Pew Research Center survey determined that, according to more than half of Americans, "most of the products" can be recycled.

A solution and an opportunity

The conversion of the plastic production cycle to a model based on recycling, in order to insert the products within a circular economy is appropriate. In this way the need to use single-use plastic would be reduced. However, recycling plastics alone cannot be a long-term solution for the development of a sustainable circular system. And it will not be possible to make a significant cut in consumption (and therefore in packaging) without a drastic deceleration of the global economy.

The transition from plastic casings to sustainable alternatives it would therefore be a big step forward and many companies are already doing their part. Investors therefore have the opportunity to support consumption patterns that create fewer negative externalities, contributing to the reduction of pollution globally. A transition that, moreover, is able to create interesting points of contact with a growing market, that of bioplastics and compostable and biodegradable polymers made from vegetable biomass such as cornstarch, tapioca, potatoes, starch or sugar cane. .

According to the projections, in fact, the size of the global bioplastics and polymers market is expected to triple, rising from $ 10.7 billion in 2021 to $ 29.7 billion in 2026, with an annual rate of increase of 22.7%. Geographically, the most significant growth will occur in the Asia-Pacific area, recording + 12,35% per year in the period 2021-2030.

On a sector basis, in 2020, packaging represented the highest share of the bioplastics and polymers market, in terms of value, followed by textiles and consumer goods.

The growing demand for bioplastics

The expansion of the global bioplastics and biopolymers market is driven by both internal and external drivers: stricter legislation, stricter taxation and a ban on disposable plastics in several countries. On the other hand, theevolution of consumer preferences contributes to the development, production and distribution of greener alternatives to traditional plastics. According to a recent consumer survey by Boston Consulting Group, nearly three-quarters of the 15,000 respondents (and the 83% among the younger generation) said they were willing to pay a higher price for environmentally-friendly packaging products, and over a fifth would even accept a 10% surcharge. Respondents' 64% also stated that packaging sustainability is an important factor in purchasing decisions.

In line with the demands of consumers and regulators, several sectors favor the production and use of bioplastics and polymers with the aim of solving environmental and economic problems, to mitigate the pressure on prices due to the rise in fuel prices. fossils. Furthermore, advances in research and development (i.e. the reduction of production costs and the acceleration of production processes) favor the diffusion of valid alternatives traditional polymers, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high density polyethylene (HDPE), low density polyethylene (LDPE) or polypropylene (PP) and polystyrene (PS). Finally, population growth and rapid urbanization are factors that support the search for sustainable solutions for packaging.

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