All you’ve ever wanted to know about how the plastics industry is working towards climate neutrality

By Virginia Janssens, Managing Director, Plastics Europe

On the heels of COP26, the talk around climate change has been at the heart of every conversation, online and off! Myself included, this has just renewed my belief in the need for immediate action, but also comforted me in the notion that the plastics industry is and has been taking major steps in the right direction. And while the 1.5° objective was kept alive, “its pulse is weak”, as mentioned by Alok Sharma, COP26 President, during his closing remarks. This means that now, more than ever, there is a sense of urgency to find solutions that promote a greener society…and this is where I believe that we – as the plastics industry – have an important role to play.

How to foster clean and renewable energy wasone of the core topics COP26 focused on. While it may not seem obvious to some at first, plastics are essential to this end: wind turbines and solar panels, two of the main sources of green energy, are reliant on plastics for various of their parts to function properly, at a reasonable cost and with durable and robust materials. For countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly linked to transport, plastics help build more lightweight and fuel-efficient vehicles, contributing to cleaner mobility. The plastics industry is also making a significant contribution towards global and European climate objectives with the reduction of CO₂ emissions in the building and construction sector, with plastics insulation saving over its lifetime over 200 times the energy used in its manufacturing, for instance. With one third of food wasted globally every year, plastics are also important in reducing food waste thanks to plastic packaging.

Walking the talk

While these are real advantages offered by our material, I am also well-aware of the global issue of plastic waste, and this is something the industry has been taking very seriously, investing time, resources and acting also at a global level via partnerships like the Alliance to End Plastic Waste to find solutions. The industry has been adjusting its production to include alternative feedstock likemore recycled plastics, biomass and CO₂.

Increasing the circularity of our material  remains a priority, and with our recent announcement on mandatory recycled content, we aim to do just that: by supporting an EU mandatory recycled content target for plastics packaging of up to 30% by 2030, we want to lead the way and create an impulse to collaborate with the institutions and value chain partners for better circularity.

Chemical recycling is also a clear focus of our industry: we announced a significant increase in planned investments of 8 billion Euros by 2030 to develop chemical recycling in Europe as this technology is capable of processing plastic waste which would otherwise end up in incineration or landfill… all the while delivering recycled material with virgin plastic properties. This will be essential to achieve 30% recycled plastics in packaging by 2030.

But we are not putting our efforts only in our material, we are also aware that to minimise our climate impact, we must look at all aspects of our operations. Some of our members have recently invested in renewable electricity for their own production facilities – these are world’s first innovations.

Designing a better future, together

When it comes to our contribution to the circular economy, we believe that with the right enabling conditions and collaboration efforts from all players concerned, a holistic approach to plastic waste is achievable. In line with the waste hierarchy our industry focuses on three key criteria – reduce, reuse and recycle. Innovation, technology and eco-design-based solutions are essential to significantly increase reuse and recycling. Designing for the latter two elements is a top priority for our members and value chain partners so that we can build a circular plastics lifecycle. We need to design for recycling with both existing and future technologies in mind, including chemical recycling, maintaining the value of products and materials for as long as possible in the circular economy. In this regard, we recently contributed to the Economist Plastics Management Index Report, a project of the Economist Intelligence Unit in collaboration with The Nippon Foundation. Designing a better future is possible, together: working in sync with our value chain partners and the right framework conditions.

After COP26…what now?

As said by Sir David Attenborough during COP26, “[We must] turn this tragedy [that is climate change] into a triumph – we are after all the greatest problem solvers to have ever existed on Earth.” We all have our part to play, and now is the time to get on with climate mitigation actions for people and planet. I am proud that our association is leading this huge low-carbon and circular evolution on behalf of our industry. We will continue to play an essential role in alleviating the climate emergency through the innovations we enable and the solutions we bring to society.

We live in challenging times and as both a mother and a citizen, I echo Attenborough’s words, and I believe it is more important than ever that we act now to provide a better world for future generations. While we are making progress to lower greenhouse gas emissions in our industry, a lot more remains to be done. We renew our commitment to continue playing our part in implementing low-carbon solutions that get us all to climate neutrality by 2050. We continue building on the momentum created by COP26 and act now with our value chain partners and policymakers to accelerate this journey.