With the development of bakelite, the Belgian professor Leo Baekeland achieved a revolutionary breakthrough in the early twentieth century. This first true plastic turned out to be an excellent alternative to all kinds of natural raw materials and found applications in many everyday utensils such as furniture, light switches or cameras. The modern material was also crucial in the development of communication technology with the arrival of the telephone, radio and television.
In the post-war reconstruction and the golden sixties, plastics were embraced by everyone. A new plastic such as nylon was not only used in textiles but also to make tables, chairs or buckets. Thanks to plastics, the sound quality of gramophone records improved and children were given a wider choice of toys.
Lightweight, fireproof, scratch-resistant, insulating: plastics all have their own specific properties. Thanks to their versatility, they were the ideal replacement for natural materials that were coming under pressure due to the rapid growth of the middle class and increasing urbanisation and industrialisation.
These many advantages have led to a huge demand and a corresponding increase in the production and use of plastics during the past fifty years. During that period, Belgium became a leader in the plastics industry, both in terms of the production of basic polymers and the processing of those polymers into finished plastic articles.
The unbridled economic growth in the second half of the last century also had a downside. More and more people realised that this growth was accompanied by an increasing environmental impact, a scarcity of raw materials and a growing mountain of waste. This awareness has led to stricter environmental and waste legislation, but the consumer society with its throw-away mentality has continued to be an issue.
By using plastics, scarce and critical substances could also be avoided. Ivory billiard balls were replaced by plastic ones. The negative health impact of lead water pipes was prevented by the development of plastic pipes.
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Citizens are rightly finding the ‘plastic soup’ in the oceans unacceptable. Plastics are not produced to end up in nature as waste. They are too valuable for that. They must be collected and recycled. For a long time it was easier to make new plastics than to reuse old ones. That time is over. Recycled plastics are a useful raw material that should be the start of a new cycle of use.
Our challenge is to explain that plastics are not just the cause of the problem, but even more part of the solutions. They are materials with exceptional properties that increase our quality of life and sustainability of society. The level of comfort of our modern life would simply be unthinkable and unaffordable without plastics in refrigerators, mattresses, building materials, smartphones, sneakers, car tyres and so on.
So we have to consider plastics as a valuable raw material that we treat with care and which we therefore do not leave behind in the environment. Reality also forces us to see plastics as a material of the future. Without high-quality, reusable plastics the sustainable development of mankind in the 21st century and reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goals would be impossible.
Our society faces numerous challenges: climate change associated with periods of exceptional drought and more frequent floods, the growing world population with an additional need for comfortable housing, energy-efficient mobility, quality food and accessible healthcare. Plastics play a crucial role in all these challenges.
Two major sources of CO2-emissions are transport and heating for buildings. In Europe, there is an urgent need for more renovation and insulation to make existing buildings more energy efficient. Plastic insulation is extremely suitable for this. Just as for the climate-neutral construction of new building projects.
The transport sector has been able to drastically reduce fuel consumption in recent decades thanks to the replacement of steel by lightweight plastics that do not lose their robustness or safety. The weight of batteries in electric cars requires car manufacturers to use even more of those strong but ultra-light plastic materials.
Plastics play an important role in the transition to renewable energy. The efficiency of wind turbines has been greatly increased by the use of plastic composites in the vanes. The films and photovoltaic cells in solar panels are also made from high-tech plastics.
Water pipes made of plastic are indispensable for the vital supply of potable water to ensure that precious drinking water does not seep away. To better cope with periods of drought or flooding, plastics are required for the construction of buffer basins, infiltration systems and green roofs. By collecting water locally, sewers are less overloaded and rainwater can penetrate the soil better.
Every modern hospital is highly dependent on all kinds of plastics: lighter hospital beds, medical equipment, safe and sterile packaging of medicines and vaccines, protective clothing for surgeons, gloves for maximum hygiene, and so on. Plastics often have a life-saving function there.
Plastics also form the basis for sustainable packaging materials for food and beverage containers. This means that fresh vegetables, fruit, meat and fish can be stored and protected for longer so that food waste is avoided. Moreover, this packaging also helps to guarantee food safety from farmer to plate. The ecological footprint of the food itself is much larger than that of the packaging around it.
The estimate is that 90% of the ‘plastic soup’ comes from 10 rivers, of which 8 in Asia and 2 in Africa. In those river basins, the waste from 2 billion people is still not collected, let alone sorted. That is why it must be the main priority to set up a properly functioning waste management in those regions and to advocate a zero-plastics-to-landfill policy worldwide that bans the dumping of plastic waste.
That does not mean that the problem is not partly here too. In some countries in Europe, waste is still being dumped instead of being recycled. Although a change has been noticeable in recent years. Indeed, in 2017 for the first time in Europe, more plastic packaging waste was sent to recycling than landfilled.
Certainly in our own country, an extensive system of separate waste collection ensures that the recycling rate is fairly high. And yet, litter is still lurking by the roadside. With us, too, extra efforts are required to prevent people from simply throwing waste away. Even better sorting is the message to guarantee a sufficient supply of high-quality recycling material.
Strict product legislation ensures that plastics are safe for humans and the environment. Now, it is important to ensure that these plastics no longer end up in the residual waste fraction or – even worse – in nature, but in the next generation of plastics. Because if the environmental impacts of all phases in the life cycle of a material are taken into account – from exploitation of the raw material to the recycling of the article and including the impacts of the use of the article and the various transport steps, plastics often achieve the best score.
To enable a circular economy in Europe, raw materials must remain within the European borders as much as possible in order to be reused there. To this end, the European Commission has developed its ambitious Plastic Strategy calling on the industry to engage with the annual use of 10 million recycled plastics.
The plastics industry in Belgium was among the first in Europe to connect to the digital MORE platform (MOnitoring Recyclates for Europe). Plastics processors can then indicate how much recycled material they reuse in their production processes. As a sector federation, essenscia also joined the Circular Plastics Alliance, a voluntary commitment to use more recycled plastics as a driving force for a circular economy in Europe.
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Plastics are an essential link in the necessary transition from a linear to a circular economy. This requires a radical change from design phase to reuse. The initial product design needs to take into account the dismantling capabilities and the recyclability after use. This requires new collaboration models, across sectoral boundaries. This circular thinking must also be embedded in laws, norms and standards and requires a profitable recycling industry within the same region.
Converting the old linear economic thinking to a circular business model will also require different types of investment. To fully deploy the circularity of plastics, the sector is strongly committed to innovation in chemical recycling as a supplement to existing mechanical recycling techniques.
Chemical recycling can decompose plastic waste down to the molecular level in order to provide reusable raw materials for the chemical sector. The strong concentration of chemical companies, research institutions and sorting centres offers our region a unique opportunity to take the lead in chemical recycling and to work on a circular chemical industry.
The plastics of the future are a fundamental building block of the circular society that we are building together. By rigorous collection and sorting of waste, plastics can play their full role as valuable materials that are no longer wasted but are used in a smart, functional and circular manner to shape the sustainable society of tomorrow.