The future of plastics production: PCR, bioplastic and CO2-based materials

Image Source: unsplash | Julian Hochgesang

In the sixth article in our series on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), we look at decoupling the consumption of finite resources in the plastics sector. It is a central pillar in establishing a circular economy. The use of post consumer recyclate (PCR), bioplastics and CO2-based plastics to substitute virgin plastic plays a central role in this. Companies should definitely keep an eye on developments in this area and try to gain initial experience in the use of these materials.

 

When it comes to their Plastic Pledges, the major brand owners are targeting virgin plastics in particular. According to EMF’s progress report, the “Big Brands” want to reduce the use of virgin plastics by 19% by 2025.

The first step in this plan is usually to reduce the weight of plastic packaging. Reducing material consumption in this way is obvious and in many cases feasible in the relatively short term. What’s more, this step reduces costs.

However, this will not be enough to achieve the set goals. Alternative materials are needed. And this is where PCR, bioplastics and CO2-based plastics come into play as the most important representatives.

  • Bioplastics: This term covers plastics that are produced on the basis of renewable raw materials and/or are compostable.
  • PCR: Post-consumer recyclates are recyclates produced from plastics that have been collected after initial use (by a consumer), usually close to households, and fed into material recycling.
  • CO2-based plastics: These plastics are produced from CO2. The (attractive) basic idea here is to bring the greenhouse gas CO2 into a utilization cycle and at the same time to avoid emissions by substituting fossil raw materials with CO2-based products. The technologies used are referred to internationally as Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCU). CCU technologies are designed to make it possible to use CO2 and other greenhouse gases such as carbon monoxide (CO) and synthesis gas (CO2, CO and H) to manufacture a wide range of products.

 

Outlook for 2050

According to a study by the Nova Institute presented at Biopac in April 2022, fossil-based materials will no longer be in demand in 2050. However, there is still a long way to go before that happens.

  • In 2020, 84 percent of plastics were still made from fossil-based raw materials, 10 percent came from bio-based materials and only 5 percent from recycled materials.
  • By 2050, the study predicts that 55 percent of plastics demand will be met by recycled materials, 25 percent by CO2-based materials and 20 percent by bio-based materials.

 

PCR: status and examples

Currently, the use of PCR materials is still at a low level. For example, according to EMF 2020’s “The Global Commitment 2021 – Progress Report,” only a total of 8 percent of plastic packaging used in Europe consisted of PCR materials. By 2025, this rate is expected to rise to 26 percent. This will require annual growth of 29 percent.

In fact, there has been a steadily growing number of pilot projects recently. It can also be observed that the demand for PCR is rising sharply. However, the supply of solutions is not (yet) sufficient. A serious limiting factor here is certainly also the glaring lack of available recyclate – especially in the area of PCR materials approved for food contact.

The lack of available material means that RPET, for example, is up to €1000 per ton more expensive than virgin PET.

Current market examples of the use of PCR in packaging include:

  • The “Trioworld” PCR plastic film developed by Lidl. It is approved for frozen foods and is currently being used by Lidl to package frozen cinnamon rolls.
  • LyondellBasell and Greiner Packaging have developed a PCR material that is used for the production of Nestlé’s “Nescafe Dolce Gusto” coffee capsules.

 

Bioplastics: status and examples

Bioplastics currently have only a small share of packaging materials. Although greater growth has been repeatedly forecast in recent years, real-world development has so far been modest.

However, there are a number of companies investing in new factories for bio-based plastics.

  • These include Avantium and TotalEnergies Corbion. In particular, production by Avantium is already showing greater volumes and economies of scale.
  • Economies of scale are also on the minds of Brazilian chemical company Braskem, which plans to license a green ethylene technology worldwide.

Economies of scale will play a major role in being able to produce the material at a more favorable and competitive price. In view of current developments, it can be assumed that growth in bioplastics will increase somewhat in the next few years. This is also shown by initiatives from branded companies. For example, Unilever has secured Renewable PP from Neste Oyj in order to save Virgin Plastic.

However, compared to the use of PCR, Bioplastics continues to play a smaller role. In addition, no “bio-version” has yet prevailed over others, even though the so-called drop-in bioplastics have basically established themselves best.

The “underperformance” of bioplastics certainly also has to do with the “tank vs. plate” debate. It calls bioplastics into question when their raw materials compete with food production, such as when corn or sugarcane are used. Although there are quite a few research projects, pilot projects and even actual production of plastics from raw materials such as algae, straw or food production waste, it remains questionable whether this can provide the required volumes.

 

Carbon-based solutions: status and examples

The first plastics based on CO2 are already coming onto the market. The approach is still young compared to PCR and bioplastics. However, demand and the number of pilot projects are currently increasing enormously.

Examples of the use of carbon-based plastic can be found, for example, at:

  • Danone and Lanzatech. The pilot project uses carbon to produce Sustainable PET.
  • Coca-Cola and Changchun Meihe Science & Technology. Here, Upcycled Biomass is used to produce PET.
  • LanzaTech and Migros. According to the company, the world’s first bottle with PET made from CO2 won the German Packaging Award in 2021.

 

Conclusion & classification

The end of the consumption of finite resources is still some way ahead. But the direction is clear and seems irreversible. Fossil raw materials are on the retreat.

The continuous and successful reduction of the weight of plastic packaging and the corresponding savings of material cannot continue indefinitely – and they cannot finally solve the problem of decoupling from the consumption of finite resources. This can only be achieved with the use of PCR materials, bioplastics and CO2-based plastics. This is where the future of plastics manufacturing lies.

At present, it is still very difficult for companies to procure and use these three materials for the reasons described. However, this circumstance should not lead to passivity. It is very important for companies to keep an eye on developments and, if necessary, to gain initial experience. After all, the future is clear and those who are well prepared will be able to benefit more quickly and more strongly.


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