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Petrochemical Industry Concerned over Plastic Waste

04/18/2019

Jim Fitterling, CEO of Dow Chemical recently stated “Plastic waste. I believe, is going to be the sustainability issue of our time.”  Addressing the World Petrochemical Conference in San Antonio in mid-March, he opposed restrictive legislation aimed at reducing plastic waste.  Currently 21 U.S. states are considering 133 bills related to use and disposal of plastic.

Fitterling noted that developing nations including Thailand and China do not have the infrastructure to handle waste.  He characterized the situation as “it is not plastics, the issue is the lack of an effective collaboration, recycling and reuse system. Since China implemented the “National Sword” program exports of plastic waste to that nation has ceased resulting in an accumulation of 450,000 metric tons of material in the U.S. 

Bob Patel, CEO of LyondellBasell Industries cited in the Chemical and Engineering News, April 8th edition, advocated for more extensive recycling.  In the event that waste plastic is not processed into new items, he believes that the growth in the plastics industry will decline from a four percent annual rate to two percent.  He stated, “it may change how we think about capital deployment and drive us to embed circularity in our business models.”  He added, “let’s do more to explain why plastics are good for society and I believe that the time has come to address the issue head-on rather than to advocate for why we are great.”

 

Both Dow and LyondellBasell have committed to the Alliance to end Plastic Waste involving 35 companies that collectively will spend $1.5 billion to reduce waste through promoting infrastructure and recycling, mainly in developing nations.

 

Nina Bellucci Butler, CEO of More Recycling commented on the “tsunami of material coming online compared to a droplet of recycling”.  The problem from her prospective is that it cost more to process post-consumer plastics than it does to buy virgin material.  This is in part due to the low price of shale-derived gas serving as the feedstock for the petrochemical industry.

 

With an increase in projected annual demand in the region of 6 to 7 million tons of ethylene annually, expansion in the U.S. and China will add 10 million tons per annum from 2020 through 2023.  Additional volume will enter the market even though plant capacity will decline to 88 percent. Coal-to-chemical plants manufacturing vinyl chloride and ethylene glycol will be financially non-viable and obsolete ethylene crackers, mainly in China, will probably close.

 

With a narrower focus, the U.S. egg industry uses a large quantity of polystyrene foam cartons.  This material provides excellent protection for eggs, is light in weight and technically can be recycled.  The challenges are establishing collection center and consumer education.  Unfortunately there is a demonization of plastic packaging material promoted by environmental groups and amplified on the web.  The obligation for manufacturers of non landfill-degradable packaging will be to create a chain of recycling which will benefit manufacturers, egg producers and the environment.  From discussions with the allied industry, it is evident that they are aware   of legislative initiatives and consumer resistance and are taking positive steps to resolve the issue.  Time is running out and the longer it takes to develop a solution the more intense will be the need for consumer education.  As it is, children are being taught in schools that plastics are “bad”.  To quote Patel, “If we don’t do something about the waste issue soon then perhaps the teachers are right.”