Each year, plastic products make their way into the environment. Governments and communities have responded by instituting programs that swap plastics with other materials or ban them altogether to tackle this waste issue.
Whilst this may help for limited plastic applications, the reality is that plastics will continue to play an important role in modern society. The popularity of synthetic polymers exists because these materials bring exceptional functionality in countless products and in most aspects of our daily lives. Swapping all plastics with other materials may not be a realistic or a sustainable solution. Instead, we need a greater focus around the circularity of plastics.
What is Circularity?
A circular economy differs from a linear one in the way that once a product reaches its end of life, it makes its way back into the value chain. The product is therefore used for longer and is kept from reaching landfills.
Imagine the plastics you interact with every day, whether it is your computer, your yogurt cup or the plastics in your car, being collected, reprocessed and shaped into something new. Because many plastics can be recycled, plastics will not only contribute towards waste reduction, but they will also allow for low carbon footprint materials.
The Challenges of Building a Circular Economy
Plastics recycling is not new. In addition, research, technology and investments in this space are increasing rapidly, which is very encouraging. However, true circularity in plastics is still in its infancy, so naturally challenges lie ahead. A circular value chain is made up of several participants each having a role in the production, the use and the collection of materials. Because of this, circularity will never be achieved by any individual company alone but instead requires collaboration with all participants in the chain through unprecedented cooperation.
Collecting & Sourcing
Collecting and sourcing waste is a crucial enabler of circularity. This by itself represents a major challenge either because of volume availability, contamination, limitations in sorting, non-harmonized waste management across regions or simple consumer behavior.
To overcome sourcing challenges, we need improved waste management, regulation and increased consumer awareness. We need better collaboration on waste recovery and more investment in recycling technologies.
An important part of the solution for Trinseo was to expand its presence in the value chain. It did this by acquiring Heathland B.V., a leading recycler in Europe for PMMA, PC, PS, ABS and other valuable plastics. Through this investment, we can work very efficiently together within the supply chain to source, reuse plastics and provide our customers novel circular solutions.
A successful circular business model only starts with a high demand for recycled materials. We must educate consumers on the benefits of circularity, promote waste recovery and encourage the demand of recycled plastic products from the brands they use daily.
The ease with which we can produce recycled content products plays a major role in driving demand. It is important for us as producers to carry out consistent and reproducible processing of such materials. We do this through material research and process innovation and in this way ensuring recycled materials meet the best quality standards for our customers.
When circular products are in-demand and recycled feedstocks are increasingly accessible, this enables sustainable materials providers like Trinseo to source high-quality post-consumed materials that can easily be reintroduced into a circular model.
Circularity is achievable through greater collaboration. At Trinseo, we are dedicated to advancing our role in establishing a circular economy and have already started several initiatives in this direction. Plastic materials will remain a vital and large part of our daily lives. If produced responsibly, with increased sustainable feedstock and used for longer, circular plastics can actually help us reduce our impact on the environment and manage our waste better.