“Replacing fossil fuel-based plastics with bio-based plastics has shown to play an important role in GHG mitigation.”
The debate over the global footprint of plastics needs to be holistic and include an analysis of carbon emissions emitted during production of plastics as well as end-of-life management issues, an industry expert said.
Speaking to Bio Market Insights, Biome Bioplastics CEO Paul Mines said that the discussion around plastics isn’t solely about its end of life but its start of life. He also said that the production of oil-based plastics was hugely carbon intensive.
Citing a Nature Climate Change report published earlier this year, Mines said that global plastics production had quadrupled over the past four decades and if this trend were to continue, the GHG emissions from plastics would reach 15% of the global carbon budget by 2050.
In fact, plastics production is currently responsible for 5% of global CO2 emissions. These gases are released during oil and gas drilling, and as a result of energy consumption in the plastics processing and conversion industry. In essence, the manufacturing of plastics is done at high temperatures and high pressure and this requires a lot of energy, which is derived from oil. You also need a high input of energy for the production and conversion process into pellets.
Plastics industry’s carbon impact is bigger than airline industry
Burning plastics in energy-from-waste plants also releases greenhouse gases. In contrast to the plastics industry, the aviation industry produces around 2% of global emissions.
Mines said that momentum is growing for plans to decarbonise energy through electric cars and gas from the grid, but there is no “such plan for plastics yet”.
However, Mines acknowledged that the decarbonisation of plastics would slightly be helped by the promotion of renewable energy and the grid shifting away from fossil fuel-based energy. The Nature Climate Change report backed Mines’ point and stated that even if fossil fuel feedstock is used as the sole source for plastics production, a 100% renewable-energy scenario will reduce the average lifecycle GHG emissions by half from the baseline emissions.
Mines also maintained that virgin plastics would still be produced in the future, but stressed the need for it to be produced in a low-carbon way. He added: “Clearly, I will contend that part of that low-carbon way is to produce this from biomass rather than from oil. I am sure that there will be materials produced from oil until 2050, but some of these research papers are starting to highlight that you have to use a biomass input that captures CO2 in its production process to reduce GHGs.
“If you can capture the carbon when you make the plastics and then use them in a way that is low carbon using renewable energy during the conversion process and then recycle them, then you are in a virtuous loop where you capture carbon rather than emit it during the plastics process. We are a long way from doing that on a meaningful scale, but we have to have some aspiration in this regard.”
Nature Climate Change report also maintained that replacing fossil fuel-based plastics with bio-based plastics has shown to play an important role in GHG mitigation.
Nevertheless, the report’s results also showed that emissions of bio-based plastics were highly dependent on the end-of-life [EoL] management method chosen. It stated: “Composting or incinerating bio-based plastic waste, for example, showed similar or even higher GHG emissions than the scenario in which 100% fossil fuel-based plastics were used under the projected EoL mix in 2050.
“Moreover, EoL management of bio-based—especially biodegradable—plastics requires systematic changes such as separate collection and recycling infrastructure, since inclusion of biodegradable plastics in the mix of conventional plastic waste can affect the quality of the recyclates.”
Mines concluded: “Our economy is based on 380 million tonnes of plastic per year. It’s difficult to imagine no plastics. They are quite useful and they are lightweight. Finding a way to still maintain that functionality without the carbon emissions that go along with it is the challenge we need to face up to. The NGOs call for banning all plastics is all well and good in raising the alarm, but we also need to have the sophisticated debate of ‘if we are going to make them, how do we make them in a low-carbon manner?’”