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Defossilizing the chemicals and polymers industry: Europe’s chance to shine

Mercedes Alonso / Feb 2022

Frans Timmermans, European Commissioner for the European Green Deal. Photo: Europen Union, 2022

 

Plastics play an ever increasing role in our lives. Since the 1960s, the global production of plastics has increased more than twentyfold and is expected to double again by 2035. Europe alone is producing some 55 million tonnes of plastic per year (2020). While polymers offer favourable properties for a variety of applications, they also come with a significant climate impact: plastic waste is still often incinerated, ends up as landfill or as plastic pollution in our environment. The plastics industry strongly relies on fossil resources - and when produced from fossil sources, polymers add additional carbon to the system and additional CO2 to the atmosphere at the end of the products’ life. Hence, the potential for the polymers and chemicals industry to contribute to the European climate targets and the European Green Deal is significant.

Sustainable carbon cycles

In December 2021, the European Commission unwrapped an early Christmas surprise by setting an aspirational target: by 2030, at least 20% of the carbon used in chemical and plastic products is to come from sustainable, non-fossil sources. This target is good news in two respects: On the one hand, the target acknowledges that in contrast to other sectors, chemicals and polymers can’t be decarbonized: carbon is an essential building block for the most basic processes in these industries. On the other hand, it takes into account the emissions that come with fossil resource usage. Hence, there is no way around transforming the industry to sustainable non-fossil sources and a clear goal for 2030 sets the course for just that.

At the same time, the target begs the question about the character and definition of “sustainable non-fossil sources”. Considering the task ahead, it makes sense to be as open to as many technologies as possible. As there is no silver bullet when it comes to climate protection, we should not make the mistake of excluding technologies or solutions and instead include any option that shows great potential. Some might be available now, others might be still in development - but eventually, they will all have to make their contribution. In terms of chemicals and polymers, this means bio-based materials as well as recycled materials - mechanically and chemically recycled - and also those materials that are based on capturing CO2 from the atmosphere. By using them all, we can maximise our impact. And we shouldn’t forget that the technologies are there already: Neste is already today able to replace fossil feedstocks with renewable feedstocks - without the need for changes in the production infrastructure. At the same time, chemical recycling capacities are being developed, but it will take some time and the right framework to commercialise and scale them up.

Policy framework for bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics

Yet: While all solutions have their place when it comes to combating the climate crisis, there are big differences between them. That is important to recognize when drafting the respective regulation. When the EU is going to put forward its policy framework for bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics in Q2 2022, it will be crucial to provide separate frameworks for separate solutions - in this case separate frameworks for bio-based plastics and for biodegradable/compostable plastics. Why? While both tackle sustainability issues, they do so differently. Bio-based raw materials can also be used to produce fully recyclable products. Biodegradability and compostability on the other hand are properties related to the composition of the end-product, not dependent on the raw material. Bio-based feedstocks provide an immediate alternative to the use of fossil resources in plastics manufacturing via existing steam cracking infrastructure and bring significant GHG emission reductions to the sector. Mixing them up in the framework would be a disservice. Done right, however, the framework can support the development of legislation that recognises and boosts the role of these solutions.

Sustainable products initiative

Also expected for early 2022 is the EU’s sustainable products initiative, which aims to make products placed on the EU market more sustainable. The initiative represents a great opportunity for the EU to introduce sustainability requirements for different product families. It will revise the current Ecodesign Directive, which is not considering emissions associated with products and therefore ignoring a major sustainability factor.

With these three projects on the horizon, 2022 and the following years may see a framework being established that fosters serious change in the chemicals and polymers industry. It will be a strong basis and may serve as a catalyst to make the European chemicals and polymer industry lead on a global level when it comes to sustainability - and nothing less should be our goal: The entire world is changing and the switch to sustainable solutions is well underway. After Europe has lagged behind on several big disruptive technologies in the past, we are now ready to be a frontrunner again.

To provide the continent with sufficient tailwind on that course, we should in fact implement additional mechanisms and principles on top of what’s already in the making: 

  • Be technology neutral: The principle of technological neutrality has already been mentioned. Let’s not thwart ourselves with ideological discussions and make sure that all definitions and calculation methodologies are open for all technologies in order to push forward all available solutions to maximise our impact. 
  • Build on existing certification approaches: When it comes to sustainable raw material streams, traceability and certification are key. For a capital intensive industry such as chemicals and polymers, we need to reduce the hurdles to transform. By building on a certified mass balancing system that allows traceability from product to raw materials in complex value chains, we kill two birds with one stone: provide certified products and enable a gradual transformation of the industry to ramp-up sustainable value chains. 
  • Support investments: As of today, the decision to transform is often questionable from a pure commercial perspective: Investing to make one’s production more expensive is not exactly the epitome of business logic. Hence, appropriate financial incentives to promote innovation and investments in circular and sustainable technologies can support the transformation. 
  • Incentivise using sustainable materials: By promoting the use of renewable or recycled over fossil raw materials, we can help bridge the price gap. Mandates can provide a level playing field and - together with fiscal or economic incentives - ramp up the demand for sustainable solutions. 

 

We have to see the transformation towards sustainability as what it is: the chance of a century for the European industry to get back into the lead. Regulation will play a key role in that and the EU has all the tools at hand to get the job done.

 

Mercedes  Alonso

Mercedes Alonso

February 2022

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