PLASTICS are fundamental to modern life but plastic waste is an issue in sharp focus, like never before.
Campaigns calling for cleaner seas are sweeping the world.
The need to tackle marine litter is now on everyone's radar.
Powerful images of children playing on mountains of discarded plastic bottles and sea turtles, mistaking plastic for food, are all around us.
As one of the largest producers of plastic in the world, INEOS is as horrified as anyone at these images and the rising tide of plastic filling our oceans.
But plastic is not evil. Plastic waste is evil, especially when it is badly handled.
So giving up on plastic is not the answer. What’s needed is a wave of change.
We believe it is not about saying no to plastic but saying no to throwing away plastic.
We also need to talk about how that rubbish ended up in those rivers, on beaches, and in the ocean and what we can do about it.
Plastic is valuable. Just like glass, metal, and paper.
It has changed the world like no other material and is fundamental to everyday life.
But it is hardly ever associated with sustainability, and how it has saved lives. And that is frustrating.
Plastic packaging, which keeps food fresh without preservatives and protected, free from bacteria, has also transformed the food industry by making it possible for people in developing countries to raise their living standards by exporting food cheaply to the developed world, with significant benefit to their economies. Trade, which is growing thanks to plastic, is better than aid.
Car body parts, dashboards, bumpers, engine parts, and fuel tanks are all made from plastic to maintain their strength but, at the same time, reduce the weight of cars.
And similar items are enabling aerospace companies to make planes, trains, and lorries lighter and more efficient.
That means transport needs less fuel causing less pollution, reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and costs.
Even electric cars use less power the lighter they are.
Another result is fewer deaths and injuries on the roads because of the use of plastic in things such as car body parts used as ‘crumple zones’ and in airbag technology.
Your mobile phone, your iPad, your computer are all lighter, smarter, smaller and more durable, again thanks to plastic. Heart stents, catheters, syringes, blood bags, prosthetics, pill casings, MRI machines, incubators, dialysis machines, sterile pharmaceutical packaging, and operating theatres are all made of plastic. So too are mosquito nets, disease treatment kits, and water purification pouches, all needed when natural disasters strike.
The rotor blades and components for wind turbines are tough enough to withstand rough weather, on and offshore, because they are made of plastic.
Traditional materials, such as steel, are simply nowhere near as efficient.
In the early days of the industry, steel blades were shown to fail after only a few hundred hours of operation.
In some parts of the world, such as Mexico City, plastic pipes have been a godsend, bringing people clean, drinking water along durable pipes that were cheap and easy to install.
Plastic is all around us. In buildings. In electrical goods. In underground pipes. In clothes and shoes. In toys. In contact lenses. In inhalers. In the cash in our wallets. Even in people.
Plastics are also now making great headway in enhancing the quality of life through implants, replacing worn-out hips, knees, even teeth.
To replace plastic with alternative materials would actually be a retrograde step that would be bad for the environment.
It takes more energy to make something out of steel, or glass, for instance, than it does plastic.
That results in increases in greenhouse gases.
Working With Others
All the plastic INEOS makes can be recycled. But recycling becomes difficult when different plastics – and there are more than 50 types of polymer – are combined by manufacturers to make highly efficient but complex packaging.
That needs to be simplified if we are to improve the amount of plastic that can be recycled.
We are now working with packaging designers who blend those polymers for superior properties but, in doing so, make it harder for their products to currently be recycled.
Improving the Quality of Recycled Plastic
There are issues too with recycled plastic. It can be used to make drainage pipes, bridges, fences, signs, seating, bin liners, and kerb stones to name a few but the quality of it can be a problem. Often it doesn’t look, feel or perform as well as non-recycled plastic. People don’t like it. More importantly for applications such as packaging, that comes into contact with food and drink, it is important to know where the plastic has come from.
We are working on these aspects so that one day recycled plastic or products made from recycled plastic will have the same or similar properties to virgin polymer.
Tackling the World’s Plastic Waste Mountains
Sadly only a fraction of the tonnes of plastic currently produced in the world is recycled or burned to recover their energy.
The rest ends up as landfill.
And that, particularly in Asia, is a major contributor to marine litter.
Last year China, which was previously the world’s biggest importer of plastic waste for recycling, closed its borders.
Europe and its Member States now have to rethink regulations and policy to encourage investment in their own plastic recycling technology, to deal with the issue closer to home.
But mountains of rubbish have already been exported from Europe to China and other parts of Asia – where there is no infrastructure to cope with their own waste let alone waste from other countries.
The rubbish is stored in huge, open landfill sites in densely-populated areas close to rivers where it often ends up before being carried into the ocean.
In December 2017, it emerged that just 10 rivers carry a significant amount of the plastic waste polluting our oceans.
Two are in Africa; the rest are in Asia.
The worst of these is the Yangtze River in China, which researchers revealed can carry up to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic into the sea every year.
Governments around the world need to help Asia tackle this mounting problem.
And Europe needs to stop exporting its waste to these countries because, quite simply, it is irresponsible.
We should be finding our own solutions to the problem of what to do with all our unwanted plastic.
The Holy Grail
One of the most exciting projects, which INEOS is now working on, could rid the world of all plastic waste by diverting it from landfill sites to chemical plants where it can be used as a raw material.
Currently, only certain types – and clean – plastic can be recycled. But we are trying to develop the technology with others to take plastic back into its original, chemical form. In essence, the very molecule it used to be.
That will mean waste plastic will become a valuable raw material.
If it were easy, it would have been done already. We have already tried. In 2012 we invested hundreds of millions of dollars into INEOS Bio, which attempted to convert household waste into ethanol that could have produced ethylene for the production of plastic.
But INEOS is a company which thrives on innovation and has a history of achieving the impossible.
That said, no one should underestimate the importance of what we are trying to do.
It is seen as the holy grail because it will mean we can create a truly sustainable world.
Of course, there will always be those who drop litter even if every piece of plastic can be recycled.
So we all have a role to play to make sure plastic is not littered and governments need to get tough with offenders. Adopt zero tolerance policies.
It is a global issue and governments need to work together.
We need a cultural change – and education is at the heart of it.
We all need to be aware of the damage that is being done to the world’s oceans.
In the meantime, as we seek solutions to this global challenge, we are getting our own house in order through Operation Clean Sweep®, which is designed to ensure that none of our plastic pellets at our production sites or in the supply chain, end up in the ocean.
It is an ambitious ‘to do’ list. We intend to do it.