Globally, we’ve reached a tipping point when it comes to plastic. We produce more plastic waste than we know how, or are able, to deal with. Up until relatively recently the problem was masked by China shouldering the burden.
They were importing huge amounts of plastic waste until the amount became overwhelming for them and a ban was put in place on plastic waste in 2017. The impact of this has been enormous. Such is the shortfall of plastic waste disposal to be picked up, studies are estimating that the Chinese ban will account for 111 million tons of plastic waste being displaced by 2030.
In the short term, other countries, particularly China’s neighbours, have picked up the slack. Thailand’s imports of plastic waste between January and June 2018 increased by 640%. This then led to their following suit and implementing their own ban by 2021.
Vietnam were hit too. As well as a dramatic increase in plastic imports, they were hit by regulatory trouble; ultimately mislabelled waste, unlicensed imports and falsified permits forced them to issue their own ban on recycling imports. Malaysia also followed suit.
This pattern is being replicated all over the world and the big question many are asking is, what next? Short term, some are predicting that the likes of India or countries in Africa will pick up the slack but it’s just that: short term.
So what’s the solution?
Put simply, there isn’t one in particular. The problem has to be, and is being, tackled at various different points in the plastic supply chain. Being based in the Nordics, I’m lucky to be in close proximity to a number of companies that are passing on their world-renowned knowledge and insight to tackle the problem in a range of ways.
It might not solve the problem in the short term, but a long term solution is to tackle plastic issues at their source – i.e. create plastics that either don’t go to landfill, or take a lot less than the 450 years a typical plastic bottle takes to break down.
As my colleague Harrison wrote, the plastics and oil industries are becoming more and more co-dependent. And it’s plastics derived from petrochemicals that are ultimately packing boats on the way to Asian landfills.
The alternative is to create plastics that are made from environmentally friendly petrochemical alternatives. Plastics like those manufactured by Finnish-based Neste, which can either be recycled or incinerated without producing harmful emissions. This means the product can be reused or disposed of at source.
They’re also helping with the next stage, utilising recycled plastics in the creation of their plastics. Read more about Neste’s efforts here.
Plastic was so rapidly adopted the world over, in so many different industries that it will need many different companies to help tackle it. So, in addition to large companies like Neste, the research and manufacturing of smaller companies like ABM Composite will be essential to tackle the issue. They specialise in medical plastics, i.e. those that can break down in the body, and biodegradable plastics for technical applications used in the automotive field.
The use of plastics that break down can turn negatives at landfill into positives. They’re not Nordic-based but global chemical giant BASF have created a compostable plastic solution. This means that products like single use coffee pods could become useful. Used coffee beans are a great fertiliser and if the plastic exterior could biodegrade with no ill-effects, the beans could have a positive benefit on the environment.
But even if we were to convert all plastic production today into these methods, it doesn’t change the vast amount of plastic that’s already in existence. For that, the global community needs to focus on creating a circular economy, meaning responsible waste management (no more landfills) and potentially even using waste materials as the base for future products (as with Neste).
When it comes to recycling then once again Nordic businesses are blazing a trail. Danish Aage Vestergaard Larsen are specialists in plastics recycling and purchase plastic waste, process it and can then provide plastic raw materials for other manufacturers.
Companies like Aage Vestergaard Larsen and Sweden based Rondo Plast prevent tons of plastic from heading to landfill every year. As technology develops too, they’re also able to have a real focus on, and provide a guarantee of, quality in the recycled plastics they produce. In addition, the beauty of injection moulded thermoplastics is their flexibility, meaning that they can be used for a huge array of different applications.
It’s great to see Nordic companies leading the charge when it comes to innovation in plastic production and recycling and also being advocates of a global circular economy. An example of this economy in action is the Alliance to End Plastic Waste – a group of more than 20 companies pledging over $1.5B over the next five years to help address the problem.
At this stage it’s impossible to say if measures like this will be enough to properly tackle the problem, but only time will tell. As a specialist in plastics in the Nordics though, I feel privileged to be working with, and alongside, so many companies that are carrying out both necessary and groundbreaking work.
If you have any suggestions of other companies in the Nordics or elsewhere that are doing their bit to help with the global plastics crisis then please join in the conversation in the comments!