Region prepares for circular plastics economy

23 June 2023


Representatives from the Gulf petrochemicals industry, plastics manufacturers and wider derivatives producers gathered at the Gulf Petrochemicals & Chemicals Association plastics conference in Saudi Arabia in May. There, it was agreed that while a “demonisation” of the plastics industry had indeed taken place, this was not entirely unjustified.

The Gulf region is a major producer of plastic products, among other petrochemicals derivatives. Furthermore, the GCC has been investing significantly in building large production complexes for petrochemicals – the basic feedstock for the manufacturing of plastics. 

However, despite irresponsible plastics usage and wastage being major environmental pollution issues worldwide, only about 10 per cent of plastics are recycled at present. This is due to the variability of plastics waste, contamination and gaps in the existing infrastructure.

“Every person on this planet is probably horrified by the pictures of plastic objects floating in the ocean, wildlife entangled in or ingesting plastic and mountains of plastic on dump sites and littered everywhere,” says Martyn Tickner, chief adviser of circular solutions for Alliance to End Plastic Waste, an industry-funded non-profit organisation based in Singapore. 

“Such pollution is a problem of lack of basic waste management. Three billion people – more than 35 per cent of the global population – are considered to lack access to adequate solid waste collection and properly managed disposal.”

Major pollution source

About half of global plastic waste is sent to landfill, about 20 per cent is incinerated, and the rest is either littered or burned in the open, causing severe pollution both on land and in the seas.

“Plastic, due to its non-biodegradable nature and potential toxicity, demands responsible usage and disposal,” says Hani Tohme, managing director – Middle East and head of sustainability in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region at Roland Berger, an international management consultancy headquartered in Germany. 

“However, current consumption patterns – particularly the reliance on single-use plastics – coupled with often insufficient waste management infrastructure, lead to widespread environmental pollution. 

“When not properly managed, plastic contributes significantly to land litter, marine pollution, and overall environmental degradation,” he says.

The need for recycling

Many of the severe environmental pollution problems arising from unsustainable plastics utilisation and the consumption of single-use plastics can be mitigated through the adoption of a circular plastics economy.

This is a system aimed at “reducing plastic waste globally”, say Devesh Katiyar, principal, and Jayanth Mantri, manager, at Strategy& Middle East, part of the PwC network. 

“It involves products designed for recyclability, efficient collection and sorting of plastic waste, advanced recycling technologies and policies to promote recycling.” 

They add that the scope of a circular plastics economy is global. “Annually, about 400,000 tonnes of plastic waste is traded globally, despite several restrictions. Driving circularity in plastics helps to reduce waste, conserve resources and avoid emissions and energy use associated with virgin plastics production, thereby promoting a sustainable and eco-friendly approach to managing plastics.”

Roland Berger’s Tohme adds that a circular plastics economy “disrupts the traditional linear model of ‘take-make-waste’ by adopting a restorative and regenerative approach”. 

“This framework incorporates the principles of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’, along with strategies for designing out waste and pollution, maintaining products and materials in circulation and regenerating natural systems.”

Developing a circular and low-carbon economy for plastics requires changes at every stage of the plastics value chain, both upstream and downstream, says Tickner.

“Upstream solutions are those that endeavour to reduce the magnitude of the problem through the elimination of unnecessary use, the adoption of more sustainable alternatives and the redesigning of supply chains and delivery models to encourage reuse.” 

These solutions disrupt the root causes of today’s environmental crisis, he adds. “Reuse within the commercial, business-to-business supply chains – for example of packaging used to deliver from factory to warehouse – can be adopted quite quickly.”

Downstream solutions, meanwhile, are post-use. “Here, 100 per cent collection is a basic requirement to eliminate leakage into the environment,” Tickner explains.

The successful implementation of a circular plastics economy requires systemic changes and collaboration among stakeholders, including governments, businesses and consumers
Hani Tohme, Roland Berger

Open or closed loop

The plastics recycling process can be categorised as open-loop or closed-loop. 

Open-loop recycling is typically mechanical – converting plastic waste into less demanding plastic applications or using it in other material economies, such as the construction industry.

Closed-loop recycling means returning plastic back into high-value plastic applications, either directly, through advanced mechanical or dissolution technologies, or back to chemicals feedstock via chemical recycling. 

The technologies required to recycle almost all types of materials are available, or are rapidly emerging. As a result, overcoming the recycling challenge is primarily an issue of creating the right financial environment to enable major investment in the collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure.

The commercial case for plastics recycling 

Role of governments

Regional governments and regulatory authorities will need to play a role in supporting the growth of the plastics industry, as well as in ensuring the effective and sustainable consumption of plastics.

“A circular plastics economy offers a transformative approach to addressing the plastic waste crisis, promoting economic growth while reducing environmental impact,” says Tohme. “However, the successful implementation of this model requires systemic changes and collaboration among stakeholders, including governments, businesses and consumers.” 

Robust frameworks and proven best practices “play a pivotal role in guiding organisations to develop sustainable strategies, innovative business models and effective operational transformations, ultimately determining the success of their transition to a circular economy”, he says.

Strategy& Middle East’s Katiyar and Mantri note that governments and regulatory authorities can support the sustainable growth of the plastics industry in several ways. 

“They can implement policies and regulations such as bans and taxes on single-use plastics, extended producer responsibility programmes and incentives for advanced recycling and imports of plastic waste destined for recycling.

“In addition, they can create global closed-loop supply chains and material marketplaces to gain access to feedstock. And they can develop infrastructure for the collection, sorting and recycling of plastic waste – both within the region and abroad,” they continue. 

“The Mena region has the potential to attract investments of between $30bn and $40bn over the next two decades,
to build a truly world-class recycling infrastructure.”

The problems with plastics
  • Non-biodegradable: The environmental concerns surrounding plastic stem largely from its non-biodegradable nature. Most plastics take hundreds of years to decompose naturally. This inherent property means that plastic waste tends to accumulate in the environment over time rather than breaking down and returning to the ecosystem.
  • Microplastics and toxic chemicals: When plastics degrade, they break into tiny particles known as microplastics rather than biodegrading. These particles can be ingested by wildlife, with detrimental and often fatal results. Moreover, certain types of plastics contain chemicals that can leach out over time, particularly when exposed to heat or sunlight. These chemicals can contaminate soil and water, posing risks to wildlife and potentially infiltrating the food chain.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions: The impact of emissions is related on the one hand to the production of plastics – making virgin plastics, for instance, from oil – and on the other hand to the open burning and incineration of plastics after they have been disposed of in systems that lack proper waste management. This is happening in both developing and developed countries.
Addressing the environmental impact of plastics
  • Reusability: Most plastics consumed today are single-use plastics, in packaging and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) products such as plastic bags, straws and cutlery. A shift from single-use to reusable plastics is an important way to reduce the volume of plastic being consumed, thus reducing the overall impact. 
  • Light-weighting: Another key way to reduce the volume of plastic consumed is to reduce the weight of the plastics in products. This has been an area in focus for FMCG and packaging companies in recent years.
  • Design: Plastic packaging and products that are made of plastic layers glued with other fibres and laminates cannot be recycled easily, or at a cost that does not exceed the actual value of the material. Therefore, designing plastics products and packaging that are recyclable is another way to address the environmental impact of plastics.
  • Inadequate waste management and resulting pollution: Compounding these issues, an inadequate waste management infrastructure in many parts of the world is unable to effectively handle the volume of plastic waste. This leads to widespread littering of landscapes and waterways, accumulation of plastic in landfills and marine pollution. About 8-12 million metric tonnes (mt) of plastic enters our oceans each year, significantly threatening marine life – some estimates are even as high 14 million mt. On land, plastic waste similarly disrupts habitats and negatively impacts wildlife.
Indrajit Sen
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