Is Sustainable Plastics Possible? Energy-Intensive Production Emit Significant Amounts of CO2 Into Atmosphere

Plastic is widely used. Plastics are indispensable to our civilization since they have a wealth of benefits, are incredibly adaptable, and are also reasonably priced. Currently, crude oil is primarily used to make plastics.

When the products are no longer useful, they frequently wind up in a garbage incineration facility. Plastic products are a significant cause of climate change due to their energy-intensive production and incineration processes, which release significant volumes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Relying on environmentally friendly industrial techniques, such as the circular economy, in which as much plastic as possible is recycled, might be one solution. In such case, shredded plastic waste would replace crude oil as the primary raw material for plastic products.

But is it even possible to modify the plastics industry so that it is completely sustainable? A recent study led by André Bardow, a professor of Energy and Process Systems Engineering at ETH Zurich, confirms that it is.

Researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, RWTH Aachen University, and Gonzalo Guillén Gosálbez, Professor of Chemical Systems Engineering at ETH Zurich, worked together on the project.

Need for greatly enhanced recycling rate


(Photo : MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)

The researchers examined all 14 of the most popular plastic kinds, including polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyvinyl chloride, in their full value chains, as per ScienceDaily.

90% of the plastic goods produced worldwide are made from these 14 bulk polymers. For the first time, the researchers looked at whether the plastics sector could respect planetary boundaries in their study. They serve as a gauge for overall sustainability.

These include consequences on land and water resources, ecosystems, and biodiversity, for instance, in addition to energy and climate challenges.

In other words, processes that follow planetary boundaries can continue for a long time without exhausting the planet’s resources.

According to the study, circular polymers are practical within planetary bounds. This would necessitate recycling of at least 74% of the plastic. Comparatively speaking, just about 15% of waste is currently recycled in Europe, and the percentage is probably much lower elsewhere in the world.

The analysis also reveals that recycling procedures would need to be enhanced. In particular, recycling of plastics would have to match the efficiency of other chemical processes already in place.

For now, not every type of plastic can be recycled. For instance, recycling of polyurethane foams has not yet been shown; this is a problem that Professor Bardow is also trying to solve.

The study found that the carbon required for the manufacturing of the remaining 26 percent of plastics might come from two additional sources: biomass and CO2 recovered from combustion processes or the environment (a process known as carbon capture and utilisation, or CCU).

Recycling by itself won’t cut it; all three pillars are required, claims Bardow.

Also Read: The Amount of Plastic Waste on Earth Is Enough to Wrap the Whole Planet

Renewed Interest in Recycled Plastics

By design, a circular economy is reparative and regenerative. In a “closed loop” system, materials flow continuously as opposed to being utilized only once before being discarded, as per ERM.

In the case of plastic, this entails maintaining the economic worth of polymers while preventing their escape into the environment.

One of the major obstacles to a circular economy for plastics is poorly functioning markets, which makes it difficult to increase worldwide recycling rates.

Fossil fuels, which now cost less to utilize than recycled materials, are the primary raw sources for the majority of plastics. As a result, recycling plastic has poor economics.

While many businesses are setting ambitious new targets for recyclability, few are considering their role in generating demand, or igniting end markets for recovered material.

Companies must pledge to utilize post-consumer resin (PCR) whenever possible in order to stimulate demand. The materials’ demand will be boosted by the use of PCR, producing crucial end markets that sustain the domestic recycling stream.

Related article: Filipinos Throw Out Billions of Sachets, Plastic Bags Each Day

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