The problems caused by plastic are now a hot topic. However, the challenge also offers an opportunity. By developing new technology, we can create renewable and sustainable alternatives without losing the best properties of plastic.
The Finnish social media campaign for a Plastic-free March (“Muoviton maaliskuu”) challenges people to live without plastics for a month. Drawing attention to single-use plastics and unnecessary packaging is definitely a worthy cause. However, as a lightweight, durable and versatile material, plastic also has a great many useful applications. For example, in cars, various plastic structures have increased safety and, by reducing the car’s weight, significantly reduced fuel consumption.
Many are calling for plastic-free options specifically for packaging, and some are questioning the need for packaging overall. However, plastic packaging is extremely necessary for highly perishable food products as well as products with high moisture content. While the amount of plastic waste may be worrying, according to several studies the environmental burden from food spoilage could be over twenty-fold the burden of the packaging.
Although doing away with plastics entirely is not realistic, dependence on fossil-based raw materials can be reduced. Sustainable material choices based on renewable raw materials are successfully being developed by the Finnish packaging industry and also by the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT). The demands placed on new materials are high: they should fully protect the product, function efficiently in packaging processes and also be easily recyclable. For example, the renewable plastics developed by Neste meet these demands and enable renewable plastics to enter unforeseen application areas.
Even renewable raw materials will not help, if after use the plastics end up in nature - bio-based does not necessarily mean biodegradable. While clearing the seas of plastic waste is a topical challenge, cleaning up is not enough in long term; the only lasting solution is to prevent plastic from entering the environment in the first place. This will not happen without more efficient collection and recycling systems, or without consumers who conscientiously sort their waste. The most powerful incentive for creating recycling systems is a valuable use for the collected materials. Neste is currently exploring the possibility to use plastic as refinery feedstock.
The plastic strategy recently unveiled by the European Union aims to promote the separate collection and recycling of plastics, but its policies are largely focused on mechanical recycling of material. Mechanical recycling of plastics is based on sorting and granulating them for reuse. In this process, the quality of plastic gradually deteriorates and impurities accumulate in the plastic. Therefore, mechanically recycled plastics are not accepted for use in, for example, food packaging. In addition, not all grades and combinations of plastic are suitable for mechanical recycling.
In order to reach the EU plastics recycling targets, it is essential to recycle plastics also chemically. Liquefaction of plastics produces raw material similar to crude oil, which can then be converted through various refinery processes into fuels, chemicals and new plastics. Plastics recycled through the chemical process are of comparable quality to virgin raw materials. As they are also free of impurities, there are no limitations to their applications.
Campaigns such as the Plastic-free March are an excellent way of raising consumer awareness on the use and recycling of plastics. However, a change in consumer behavior is not enough in itself. The creation of sustainable alternatives also requires new technologies, new value chains as well as the political will and legislation to enable their development.