OPIN­ION

A cir­cu­lar econ­omy that sig­nif­i­cantly re­duces waste can only be achieved through be­havioural change and mov­ing from sin­gle-use to re­us­able ap­pli­ca­tions. Plas­tic is still the most sus­tain­able op­tion to pro­mote reusabil­ity, com­ments

Refining & Petrochemicals Middle East - - CONTENTS - Dr Ab­dul­wa­hab Al-sadoun

Dr Ab­dul­wa­hab Al­sadoun of GPCA on sus­tain­able plas­tic so­lu­tions be­ing cru­cial for to­day’s global chal­lenges

Across the world to­day, plas­tic pol­lu­tion is per­haps the sin­gle most de­bated topic. Of­ten sin­gled out as the big­gest threat to our en­vi­ron­ment in mod­ern times, the ma­te­rial it­self has be­come the sub­ject of wide spread crit­i­cism, strin­gent reg­u­la­tions and bans.

In May this year, the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion pro­posed a ban on a list of sin­gle-use plas­tic prod­ucts and their sub­sti­tu­tion with other more ‘sus­tain­able’ al­ter­na­tives. In the West, and even in the UAE, some big brands and re­tail­ers have been swift to ban plas­tic straws, cof­fee stir­rers and sin­gle-use plas­tic bags in a series of moves aimed at com­bat­ing ma­rine lit­ter and ad­dress­ing plas­tic pol­lu­tion.

It is im­por­tant to note that what we are see­ing as a re­sponse by the global com­mu­nity to this grow­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis is largely based on emo­tions and is hardly backed by sci­en­tific re­search. We of­ten hear calls to ban plas­tics but let us first con­sider the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pli­ca­tions of re­plac­ing it with other al­ter­na­tives.

A re­cent study by Tru­cost found that us­ing plas­tics in con­sumer goods and pack­ag­ing is nearly four times less harm­ful to the en­vi­ron­ment than it would be if plas­tics were re­placed with al­ter­na­tive ma­te­ri­als, such as pa­per and glass. In­ci­den­tally, the man­u­fac­tur­ing and re­cy­cling of these al­ter­na­tive ma­te­ri­als is far more en­ergy and wa­ter in­ten­sive com­pared to that of plas­tics.

The study fur­ther warns that re­plac­ing plas­tics with al­ter­na­tives would in­crease en­vi­ron­men­tal costs from $139bn, based on fig­ures from 2015, to $533bn an­nu­ally. Worse yet, it would grow the global warm­ing po­ten­tial by 130%, en­ergy use by 80%, and waste gen­er­a­tion by 55mn tonnes. The study also es­ti­mates that in the Mid­dle East and Africa re­gion, the en­vi­ron­men­tal cost of mov­ing from plas­tics to al­ter­na­tive ma­te­ri­als will jump from $6 per tonne to $34 per tonne. This would have a sig­nif­i­cant neg­a­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact, in­clud­ing on sev­eral of the UN Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals es­pe­cially SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-be­ing), SDG 6 (Clean Wa­ter and San­i­ta­tion), SDG 12 (Re­spon­si­ble Con­sump­tion and Pro­duc­tion), and SDG 13 (Cli­mate Ac­tion).

Lack of waste man­age­ment in­fra­struc­ture

Plas­tic ma­rine lit­ter is a global chal­lenge com­prised of com­plex fac­tors, chief amongst which is the mis­man­age­ment of plas­tic waste due to lack of ad­e­quate land-based in­fra­struc­ture in the emerg­ing economies. As much as three-fourths of land-sourced ocean plas­tic waste come from un­col­lected waste from land, with the re­main­ing orig­i­nat­ing from gaps in the col­lec­tion sys­tem it­self.

Among the top con­trib­u­tors of plas­tic ma­rine lit­ter glob­ally are some of Asia’s fastest grow­ing economies such as In­done­sia, the Philip­pines, Viet­nam, Thai­land and China, which ac­counted for a com­bined 16.7mn met­ric tonnes of mis­man­aged plas­tics in 2010.

China has re­cently put a ban on im­ports of 22 types of lower-grade waste, in­clud­ing plas­tic waste, cre­at­ing a real ur­gency to de­velop do­mes­tic re­cy­cling and waste man­age­ment in­fra­struc­ture in coun­tries that largely de­pend on ex­port­ing their ex­cess waste to China. With Asia’s largest econ­omy ac­count­ing for about two-thirds of global plas­tic waste im­ports in 2016, this has cre­ated an ur­gent sit­u­a­tion for

As it stands, to­day’s most in­no­va­tive med­i­cal pro­ce­dures de­pend on plas­tic in­no­va­tions. How much of this can we re­place with bet­ter al­ter­na­tives? The an­swer is ‘prob­a­bly none’!

these coun­tries, in par­tic­u­lar the GCC, which ex­ports a sig­nif­i­cant amount of its waste to China.

The es­tab­lish­ment of a ro­bust re­cy­cling and waste man­age­ment in­dus­try in the Ara­bian Gulf could yield sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fits for the re­gion, in­clud­ing added value to the lo­cal econ­omy, job cre­ation, and achiev­ing the sus­tain­abil­ity tar­gets listed in the var­i­ous na­tional vi­sions by re­gional govern­ments.

Ac­cord­ing to some sta­tis­tics, as many as 10 new jobs can be added to the re­gion for each tonne of plas­tic waste gen­er­ated, sum­ming up re­cy­cling, col­lec­tion, sort­ing, and tran­spor­ta­tion, while re­cy­cling just one kilo­gram of plas­tic waste could save 1.4kg of CO2 from be­ing emit­ted into the at­mos­phere. Saudi Ara­bia is al­ready tak­ing steps in this di­rec­tion with the es­tab­lish­ment of a re­cy­cling sec­tor com­pany via its Pub­lic In­vest­ment Fund (PIF).

Plas­tic en­ergy re­cov­ery

Beyond re­cy­cling, to truly tran­si­tion into a more sus­tain­able eco­nomic model, the Ara­bian Gulf re­gion must em­brace the cir­cu­lar econ­omy con­cept, which is grounded on the prin­ci­ple of max­imis­ing the value and util­ity of ma­te­ri­als over their life­cy­cle and keep­ing them in­side the value chain for as long as pos­si­ble, thus min­imis­ing en­ergy and re­source con­sump­tion.

Thanks to its flex­i­bil­ity, as a ma­te­rial, plas­tics can play a key role in en­abling the cir­cu­lar econ­omy. With cur­rent tech­nol­ogy, as much as 50% of post-use plas­tics can be reused and re­cov­ered for their en­ergy through chem­i­cal re­cy­cling, with ad­di­tional 40% be­ing brought back into the cy­cle through me­chan­i­cal re­cy­cling.

Nev­er­the­less, a greater fo­cus will be needed on cre­at­ing af­ter­mar­kets, treat­ment op­tions, or both, for col­lected waste. Only through the full im­ple­men­ta­tion of waste man­age­ment sys­tems can leak­age of plas­tic into the ocean be pre­vented. De­vel­op­ing even more ef­fi­cient plas­tic pack­ag­ing, in­creas­ing re­cy­cling and the con­ver­sion of plas­tic waste to en­ergy can help fur­ther curb ocean lit­ter and pre­serve valu­able re­sources. Ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can Chem­istry Coun­cil (ACC), re­cy­cling HDPE and PET plas­tics can save enough en­ergy each year to power 750,000 homes.

Ger­many is one pos­i­tive ex­am­ple to the world as it boasts one of the high­est re­cy­cling rates glob­ally and saves about $4.34bn an­nu­ally due to re­cy­cling and waste to en­ergy con­ver­sion. In­vest­ing in re­search and de­vel­op­ment can pay huge div­i­dends to the re­gional econ­omy, while also en­hanc­ing its lead­er­ship role in en­vi­ron­men­tal care and global in­no­va­tion in­dices.

The way for­ward

We live in a world that faces a con­stant in­flux of chal­lenges, from rapidly grow­ing pop­u­la­tions, to a fast ex­pand­ing mid­dle class, ur­ban­i­sa­tion, cli­mate change and tech­no­log­i­cal dis­rup­tions. These trends are sig­nif­i­cantly im­pact­ing our daily lives, chang­ing the ways we ac­cess key ne­ces­si­ties such as wa­ter, food, hous­ing and tran­spor­ta­tion, putting a grow­ing amount of pres­sure on ba­sic ser­vices and goods, with the health­care sec­tor, es­pe­cially in coun­tries with ag­ing pop­u­la­tions, in­creas­ingly feel­ing the strain.

Mod­ern health­care ad­vance­ments would not be pos­si­ble with­out the use of plas­tic ma­te­ri­als that have for decades played a key role in pro­vid­ing es­sen­tial med­i­cal sup­plies, help­ing to im­prove the health of mil­lions of peo­ple and sav­ing lives around the world. As it stands, to­day’s most in­no­va­tive med­i­cal pro­ce­dures de­pend on plas­tic in­no­va­tions. How much of this can we re­place with bet­ter al­ter­na­tives? The an­swer is ‘prob­a­bly none’!

How­ever, as the de­bate on sus­tain­abil­ity con­tin­ues, some NGOS and brand own­ers are pro­mot­ing al­ter­na­tives that they feel are more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly, in the process only re­plac­ing sin­gle-use plas­tics with other sin­gle-use ma­te­ri­als. This is not help­ing to re­duce waste, but only chang­ing its com­po­si­tion.

In a time of rapid in­no­va­tion and grow­ing so­ci­etal chal­lenges, we need to de­velop sus­tain­able so­lu­tions us­ing solid sci­en­tific re­search and facts. The only way for­ward is to in­no­vate and col­lab­o­rate to ad­dress all global chal­lenges that we, as a so­ci­ety, face to­day.

The es­tab­lish­ment of a ro­bust re­cy­cling and waste man­age­ment in­dus­try in the Ara­bian Gulf could yield sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fits for the re­gion, in­clud­ing added value to the lo­cal econ­omy, job cre­ation, and achiev­ing the sus­tain­abil­ity tar­gets listed in the var­i­ous na­tional vi­sions by re­gional govern­ments.

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