Officials of one Chinese plastics trade group believe there are many opportunities for the industry in making China's development more environmentally sustainable, particularly in the automotive market.
Chinese cars, for example, use only about half the plastics of vehicles in developed countries. So boosting plastic applications would lighten cars, reduce fuel consumption and save energy, said Ma Zhan Feng, secretary general of the China Plastics Processing Industry Association.
Ma spoke to about 60 industry officials and government representatives gathered Oct. 22 in Chongqing for the Plastics Sustainable Development Annual Conference and Plastics & Automobiles Sustainable Development Forum.
The event, sponsored by CPPIA and several Chongqing government agencies, was the kick-off event for a new sustainability committee CPPIA has formed to push a pro-plastics message in environmental debates, help develop industry standards and have a larger voice in shaping government regulations.
The industry is under environmental pressure from governments and the public concerned about the impact of plastic waste, such as the country's recent plastic bag ban. It's also under economic pressure from the rising Chinese currency and slumping world economy, so it must adopt a greater focus on sustainability to remain competitive, Ma said.
Automobiles are one area where Chinese companies should look to plastics to replace heavier metal parts, he said.
The country currently lags in that area. Cars in developed countries use about 330 pounds of plastic per vehicle, or about 10-15 percent of the weight of a vehicle, while Chinese carmakers generally use about 150-200 per vehicle, Ma said.
Plastics allow for reduced energy consumption and greater recycling, and its physical characteristics and lower costs make it adaptable for mass production, Ma said.
China's industrial model so far has been growth-based on high consumption of resources, high pollution and high emissions to the environment, which makes energy savings and emissions reductions important for future industrial development, said Lei Wen, director of the resources-use section of the Chinese Ministry of Information and Industry.
He said China needs to put more emphasis on automobile recycling because 90 percent of car parts can be recycled. There are about 10 million cars made in China each year, with about 2 million older cars sent to the junkyard each year, he said.
The problem will get worse, Lei said: China has 40 million cars on its roads now, but there will be about 55 million in 2010.
Other speakers at the event said plastics present challenges, from ocean pollution to lack of biodegradability to recycling, and some government officials urged plastic companies to step up efforts to make car interior materials with lower volatile organic compound emissions.
China's plastics industry is attracting attention in part because of its success, with annual growth rates of about 25 percent in recent years more than double China's overall economic growth, industry officials said.
Speakers talked about environmental challenges from flame-retardant chemicals in plastics.
Governments in Europe and North America in recent years have banned several brominated flame-retardant chemicals in plastics on concerns about their toxicity and their tendency to accumulate in the environment.
Industry can take steps on its own to reduce emissions, such as the Voluntary Emissions Control Action Program that makers of flame-retardant chemicals started in 2004, said Veronique Steukers, vice chairman of the European Flame Retardant Association and a Brussels, Belgium-based manager of fire safety and advocacy with Albemarle Corp.
Under VECAP, flame-retardant chemical makers have sent teams to plastic compounders to help them reduce chemical emissions, she said. The Canadian government also is using VECAP principles in environmental agreements with companies, she said.