Online Exclusive: Ushering in a new era of sustainable plastics

By Ihsan Taie, Chief Technologist, Non-Metallics Applications, Aramco Research & Development Center, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

Research suggests the amount of plastic waste entering the world’s oceans could almost triple to 29 MMtpy by 2040[1]. It is a bleak prediction that highlights the scale of the challenge, which must be addressed not only by governments and consumers, but also by plastics manufacturers themselves. The solution may lie in the next-generation of degradable plastics.

As we discovered through the coronavirus pandemic, the problem with trying to phase out plastics – even the single-use variety - is that there is often nothing else to replace them with (as of yet). That is why, rather than focusing on plastics consumption, we should instead be directing resources towards finding sustainable solutions that address the issue of plastic waste at source.

New technologies are currently being developed as part of an industry push to prevent non-degradable materials clogging up our oceans. Scientific research now underway into the next generation of plastics aims to create products that can degrade efficiently, and which can be reused or recycled. While biodegradable plastics already exist, conventional non-degradable plastics still dominate for two simple reasons: they are more affordable and perform better than their more environmentally-friendly counterparts.

One approach to correcting this involves applying new chemistry to existing processes, which is something we are exploring at Aramco. Part of our ongoing research involves experimenting with subtle changes to the plastics manufacturing process, as we investigate ways to create conventional plastic products that degrade under specific conditions.

Other companies around the world have adopted different approaches, but we share the common goal of eradicating plastic waste while at the same time meeting rising demand for plastic products. The good news is that we expect most of these new, degradable materials to be part of the packaging industry by 2030. But we recognize the need to go faster and further. We appreciate that such advances will be key because, as technology develops further, the likelihood is that the importance of plastics in our day-to-day lives will continue to grow.

Coronavirus has amplified plastics’ importance, with demand surging for products like acrylic shields for supermarkets, offices, hospitals and public transport. Masks and surgical gowns made from polypropylene spunbond are highly sought after in the medical sector. A preference for disposable wrapping has led to a resurgence in single-use plastic packaging and shopping bags.

However, global consumption of plastics was on the rise even before the pandemic. As recently as 2018, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that demand for plastics had nearly doubled since 2000 – with a growth rate that outpaced all other bulk materials such as steel, aluminium or cement.

Advanced economies such as the US and Europe were found to use up to 20 times as much plastic on a per capita basis as countries in the developing world. A sharp increase in plastics consumption and disposal in developing economies is now anticipated, which will far outweigh efforts to increase recycling and curb single-use plastics in places like Europe, Japan and Korea.[2] In some countries, sufficient standards of waste management infrastructure and traditional recycling simply do not exist. That is why an “all of society” effort – involving industry, governments and consumers – is required, in which we work together to overcome the challenge.

Rising global consumption is driven by the sheer versatility of plastics, which are used to make everything from packaging to digital devices; medical equipment to household appliances; polyester, lycra and nylon clothing to home insulation. The list goes on.

Plastics even have a role to play in combating climate change, providing ideal materials for use in renewable energy infrastructure – such as lightweight, durable wind turbine rotor blades and affordable solar cells. Even some parts and supplies for electric vehicles are made from plastics.

Imagine a future where plastics are not only degradable or completely recyclable but are also capable of supporting smart functions like sensing, tracing and communicating. In this scenario, product packaging will not only protect consumer goods, it will contain sensors that monitor the environment both inside and outside – and communicate this information to customers.

This might sound like science-fiction but it is a realistic goal. We are already seeing new and innovative uses for plastics, which are replacing metal components across multiple industries due to their lighter weight and resistance to corrosion. In the automotive industry, for example, their lightweight properties help lower vehicle fuel consumption – resulting in cost savings for drivers and reducing CO2 emissions.

Despite the environmental challenges posed by single-use plastics today, serious efforts are underway to usher in a new era of degradable alternatives that will contribute to a more sustainable future for our planet. This is the goal we all share.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/23/plastic-waste-entering-oceans-triple-20-years-research

[2] https://www.iea.org/reports/the-future-of-petrochemicals

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