The European plastics industry has an ambitious plan to be more circular and reach net zero carbon emissions, but as a panel discussion at K 2022 showed, getting there will be a challenge.
The plan, contained in the April report "Reshaping Plastics" by the trade group Plastics Europe, said the industry would need to step up dramatically to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050 and boost the recycling rate above its current 14 percent in the nearer term.
On the panel, held Oct. 19 at the Plastics Europe booth (Hall 6, Booth C40), there was some skepticism about getting there.
"Yes, there's a road map, there's a pathway, but honestly, the scale of innovation that is needed to achieve this net zero, I find it still quite mind-blowing," said Joan Marc Simon, executive director of Zero Waste Europe. "It's going to be very, very difficult."
Simon sat on the steering committee for the report, which was commissioned by the trade group but written independently by consulting firm Systemiq, the groups said.
On the panel, representatives from industry, environmental groups, academics and a staffer from the European Commission's environment directorate hashed out the report and its conclusions around single-use plastics, the need for renewable energy and the best uses of mechanical and chemical recycling.
"I think we have seen a huge, huge acceleration in this field in the last two to three years," said Martin Yung, president of performance materials at BASF and a Plastics Europe board member. "I think everybody in the chemical industry as well as the plastics industry understands the necessity, the climate challenge, that we face.
"The most surprising and at the same time the most encouraging message of the entire study was that net zero is actually possible for plastics," Yung said. "It is the first study really showing a path towards it, the elements to it, the cost and everything."
The report, which was endorsed by Plastics Europe, said pointedly that the continent's plastics sector will need to make much faster change in the next five years to lay the groundwork to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and meet targets of global climate agreements.
The report noted that while the net zero carbon goal is three decades away, decisions in the next three to five years will be critical.
"Long technology maturity cycles and capex lock-in for large infrastructure investments mean that the decisions taken in the early 2020s will determine whether or not the European plastics system will achieve a circular economy and net zero GHG emissions by 2050," it said.
BASF's Yung said the report also showed that a very important factor in decarbonizing the European plastics industry will be to speed up the continent's development of renewable energy.