Indian plastics industry has good record on circularity: RACE conference

Excerpt: A one-day 'Recycling and Circular Economy Conference' was organised by Polymerupdate in Mumbai recently.

A one-day 'Recycling and Circular Economy Conference' was organised by Polymerupdate in Mumbai recently. The need to transition to a circular economy in the context of rapidly rising use of plastics and the generation of copious amounts of waste that leak into the environment was the subject of a one-day event.

Looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model, a circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital.

'Good record on circularity’

Speaking at the event, Mr. S.K. Ray, Indian Centre for Plastics in Environment (ICPE), noted that the Indian plastics industry has a good record on circularity, though widespread littering leads to high visibility of plastic waste in the environment. “Frugality engrained in the Indian ethos helps,” he noted, while calling for an emphasis on creation of infrastructure to collect, reprocess and reuse plastics, as well as on awareness creation – not just regulations, as is now the case.

Annual demand for plastics in India is about 20-mt, divided between 14-mt of virgin materials and 6-mt of recycled. While about 6-mt of the total is consigned to medium to long-term use (in building, construction, auto, appliances, electronics, furniture, toys etc.), a similar amount is recycled – mainly in the unorganised sector. About 2-mt of plastics – representing about 10% of total consumption – escapes the collection dragnet and represents the major concern of society and, in turn, governments and regulators.

According to Mr. Ray, a transition to a circular plastics economy will need minimisation or elimination of this waste. This will need the involvement of all the stakeholders in the Indian plastics industry, spanning primary resin producers (about 12), convertors (40,000), recyclers (8,000), waste pickers (2 million), aggregators (0.5 million), brand owners and consumers (1.3 billion).

“Waste pickers, aggregators and recyclers are key and leakages at their ends leads to the visibility of plastic waste in the environment. Leakage at waste pickers and aggregators can be reduced by diverting them for chemical/energy recycling, but financial support is needed to enable this to happen,” he added. “Learning from advanced economies with emphasis on investing in infrastructure and awareness can substantially enhance circularity.”

ICPE is of the view that landfill should be the last option for plastics. “We need land to grow food and plastics is a valuable resource that has no place in a landfill,” Mr. Ray noted.

'EPR obligations need to differ’

Dr. Vijay Habbu, Senior Vice President, Petchem Sector – Sustainability Assurance, Reliance Industries Ltd., pointed out that packaging, which represents about 24% of overall plastics consumption, is the focus of governments, media and society. “The tendency to litter varies from one packaging option to another, as does the ease of retrieval. Consequently, the Extended Product Responsibility (EPR) obligations for different plastics need to be different, but this is lost in government regulations,” he noted.

Dr. Habbu pointed to the confusion in collection messaging, and called for concise and clear communication to aid the recycling effort. “Consumer does not always understand what recycle means – 'respectfully return' is a more comprehensible messaging for individual consumers,” he added.

He called for a scientific approach to product redesign, with focus on the environment. Even light weighting, a common trend in the industry, has to strike a balance between reducing consumption and encouraging retrieval.

'16% collected for recycling globally’

Dr. Ashok Menon, Global Technology Leader, SABIC, pointed out that globally about 19% of the 260-mtpa of plastics produced leaks into the environment, while 40% goes to landfill. Just 16% is collected for recycling, and 25% is used for energy recovery.

To encourage recycling, many countries are now mandating levels of recycled content in plastic packaging. In response, several companies, including SABIC, have launched certified circular polymers for use by brand owners.

The petrochemical giant has also invested in a PET recycling facility in which used bottles are converted into flakes, which are depolymerised and trans-esterified to an upgraded polyester, polybutylene terephthalate, for automotive applications.

SABIC is also reusing carbon dioxide from its monoethylene glycol plant to make methanol, urea and use in the food & beverages industry.

Recyclable packaging formats

Mr. Milind Chavan, India Head, Plastics Sustainability and Advocacy, Dow, highlighted examples of innovations, including novel resin systems and compatabilisers, which have led to development of recyclable packaging. Dow has deve-loped all-polyethylene (PE) structures for packaging, replacing PET/PE or Nylon/PE laminates that are far more challenging to recycle. These have been taken up by some large brand owners in India including Tata Chemicals (salt packaging) and Adani Wilmar (vegetable oils).

“We have reduced edible oil leakages from 3-4% to 1% by working with converters, and enabled the packaging formats to be recyclable,” he added.

Dow has also had success in use of plastic waste in road construction. It has partnered with Pune Municipal Corporation to lay about 40-km of roads using about 100-tonnes of plastic waste – equivalent to 25 million flexible pouches.

Reprocessed resins

Ms. Deepali Kelekar, Technical & Marketing Manager, LyondellBasell, a global leader in polyolefins, pointed out that the company has entered into a joint venture with Suez, a waste management company, to set up Quality Circular Polymers (QCP), focussed on recycled plastics. QCP operates a high tech centre for sorting and processing of plastic waste in Rotterdam, with a capacity of 35-ktpa, and makes high quality polypropylene (PP) and high density polyethylene (HDPE) grades for packaging applications. While the HDPE resins are available in ivory, grey or black colours for applications outside of food contact, the PP grades are targeted at injection moulding applications.

LyondellBasell also has a collaboration for molecular recycling with Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany, and the focus is on developing new catalysts and processes for decomposing post-consumer plastic waste. The petrochemical giant has set targets to achieve 100% reuse, recycling or recovery of all plastics packaging in Europe and US by 2040.

Petrochemicals – a false hope for oil?

Ms. Vandana Hari, Vanda Insights, a consultancy, pointed out that the oil & refining industries see plastics as the future of oil demand. “But could this be false hope?” she asked.

In her view, the biggest challenge for the oil sector is figuring out to what extent a low carbon world will impact demand, and at what pace. “There is huge uncertainty over oil demand over the next 20 years with projections varying as much as 30-mbpd – very significant compared to current 100-mbpd demand.”

Petrochemicals are currently the second largest segment of oil demand (14% share), following transportation (56%), and the fastest growing source of oil demand. The International Energy Agency sees petrochemicals driving oil demand growth as it assumes demand growth will continue to outpace economic growth. OPEC also ignores the impact of recycling and the circular economy and instead sees 4.5-mbpd of demand growth for crude oil coming from petrochemicals between 2017 and 2040.

The other speakers who spoke were:

Mr. Sandeep Patel – CEO, Let's Recycle – NEPRA shared his views on “RACE to CREATE Recycling and Circular Economy in India; Mr. Ulhas Parlikar - Global Consultant gave a talk about “Co-processing Technology - A Successfully Operating Sustainable Option For Achieving Circular Economy”; Dr Shalini Sharma – Founder, ICE&SDG shared his thoughts on “Innovation for Circular Economy and Sustainable Development”; Mr. Manohar Kumar – Chief Technical Officer, Max Speciality Films gave his view on “BOPP films for Sustainable Solutions; Mr. Bipin Odhekar - Head - Operations Excellence & Sustainability, Marico Limited spake about “Opportunities in packaging design to reduce impact”; Mr. Chandra Mohan Gupta - Vice President- Public Affairs, Communications and Sustainability, Coca-Cola India gave his point on “user industry's brand owners/producers view on building a “Circular Plastic Economy”; Dr. Shilpi Kapur – Fellow, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) talking about the importance of “How the circular economy can create value for businesses and society”; Ms Pratibha Sharma - Project Officer- Plastic Waste Recycling Management, UNDP shared her thoughts on “An Integrated Approach to Plastic Waste Management: Policy dimensions and EPR guidelines”