Düsseldorf, Germany — The last year has seen big changes in industry commitments on waste and environmental issues. But the plastics sector must continue to demonstrate that its proposed solutions can work.
That was one key message from a meeting at K 2019 of the World Plastics Council, a 5-year-old body of more than 40 resin manufacturers that advocate for policies to deal with environmental challenges.
After a closed door, once-a-year meeting of the council, it opened its doors to the public for a news conference.
WPC companies did not reveal any specific decisions from their meeting, but executives said they would remain engaged in plastics-related discussions in places like the United Nations Environment Assembly, the Basel Convention and meetings of the G7 and G20.
"Looking where we are from the previous 12-14 months, there's been fantastic engagement in terms of the different players in the industry and in the value chain," said James Seward, chairman of the WPC and senior vice president of research and development, technology and sustainability at LyondellBasell.
He noted, for example, that the $1.5 billion Alliance to End Plastic Waste launched early this year and aims to help fund collection programs and projects to improve plastics waste management, with a focus on Asia.
With AEPW and other efforts, Seward said the plastics industry needs to be able to show that the solutions it is proposing can work.
"In order to be able to advocate for a science-based solution, you have to demonstrate that a science based-solution is possible," he said.
AEPW is designed to provide "catalytic capital to prove concepts" around collection or new technology to improve waste management.
"There is enormous pressure," Seward said. "I fully understand that. We have to find a solution. In the absence of a solution, then the pressure rises."
He pointed to the big increase in discussions around circularity and sustainability at the K show as evidence that the industry is moving to address the problems.
"Just walk around this exhibition; it's incredible," Seward said. "You just get a sense that this is really different now, the commitment in the industry in terms of really taking circularity seriously. If you need any other proof point, take a couple of hours and walk around. It's incredible what's going on here."
"In the last three years, this entire industry, we are all focused on sustainability," he said.
Seward said the industry wants to keep plastic waste and litter out of the environment but is also concerned about policies that could make other environmental problems worse, such as banning plastic and using other materials instead that have a higher carbon footprint.
"We cannot address that challenge and make things worse in other areas," he said. "Plastics provide enormous benefits in terms of lightweighting cars or food packaging.
"Banning plastics won't make the issue go away," Seward said.
He also said the industry has longer-term concerns that some new government policies, like limits on shipping plastic waste adopted this year under the Basel Convention, could have unintended consequences.
The Basel Convention, which regulates international trade in all kinds of hazardous waste, decided this year to bring some types of plastic waste under the convention's regulator control. That could have a significant impact on trade in recyclables.
Seward understands the environmental problems that led to the changes under Basel but also said that as recycling technologies improve, particularly with chemical and feedstock recycling, limits on waste trade could limit investment in new recycling plants.
"As long as you can manage it in an environmentally sound way, and manage the hazard, there will be a time — and I believe it's not too far off — when access to plastics waste will actually be a really challenging point," he said.
"My point is simply that if you have as a vision where plastics waste is a feedstock, I'm not sure in that environment that limiting trade of that feedstock is going to drive investment and innovation," Seward said. "It may be that if you have innovation and investment in one part of the world, and it needs to import from other parts of the world."