The trend of sustainability and circular economy is currently expanding to become one of the biggest global trends, but what is the definition of circular economy and how it affects the chemical industry? As stated in the European Parliament: “the circular economy is an economic model based on sharing, leasing, reuse, repair, refurbishment, and recycling, in an (almost) closed loop”. Often linked to the circular economy, nowadays it is impossible to avoid hearing the term “global warming” which is due to the continuous pollution. Today’s buying habits, which are boosted with special days such as Black Friday and the Monday after that, so-called Cyber Monday, trick people to spontaneous purchasing and therefore boosting the need for manufacturing. What consequences overproduction and continuous consuming habits has to plastic production, and how can we emphasize the importance of the circular economy?
In the diagram above by the Statistics Portal describes the evolution of global plastic production from 1950 to 2016, where Europe’s part can be seen in the whole world. Just in 66 years the production globally has increased steadily and by 2016 it reached the amount of 335 million metric tons: while Europe covers only approx. 18% of the whole amount, China is the leader with “accounting for around one-quarter of the global production”. The National Geographic describes in the graphic down below the global production of plastics from 1950 to 2015 and has divided different parts where plastics are needed, stating “The largest market for plastics today is for packaging materials”. According to the same article, the production started in the 1950s after inventing the plastic late 19th century and so far, it has reached the amount of 448 million tons.
The start point to the first synthetic plastic started surprisingly from the billiard game. John Wesley Hyatt decided to catch the offer for a firm in New York offering $10,000 to inventing a substitute for ivory because wild elephants were suffering from the use of ivory to produce billiard balls. With Hyatt’s invention the revolution of plastics was possible “By treating cellulose, derived from cotton fiber, with camphor, Hyatt discovered a plastic that could be crafted into a variety of shapes and made to imitate natural substances like tortoiseshell, horn, linen, and ivory”. The great bloom of the growth in the industry happened during WWII in the US when the production increased by 300% and after the war people started to use plastics, even more, when they were able to invest more money on commodities.
In the first place, plastic was invented to create new materials and not to be depended on the natural resources such as wood and stone, and now we are facing the problem with drowning to the plastics because they are everywhere. Bags, packaging, and bottles are just a small part of how we are using plastics in our everyday life. For instance, recently one of the biggest producers of plastic bottles Coca-Cola Company acknowledged they make 128 billion bottles per year. Another discussion lately, besides the plastic bottles, has been concerning the use of plastic bags and global actions can already be seen. German Economic Institute stated in 2010 that average German uses more or less 70 bags per year, calculating the whole country goes up to 6 billion bags every year. To go even wider with the topic, one trillion bags are used globally. Especially in Europe, the change has happened during recent years when retail and grocery stores have shifted to chargeable bags and preferring paper over plastic ones. There are other implements as well to be seen, some grocery stores offer already reusable bags for vegetables and fruits.
The problem doesn’t only apply to the overproduction and usage, but the disposal and recycle as well. A country such as Germany pays a lot of attention to separate the household waste, but globally it needs to be done much more. Most of the European countries are doing a good job but shocking pictures from some of the low economic countries makes us face the cold hard fact of how much we really have to still improve. Recycling is a challenge depending on the product and how it is produced, back in the 1980s there was barely any recycling done which was 18% in 2015. Materials such as food jars, clothing, and carpet fiber and beverage bottles make up 11% as easy to recycle, meanwhile, 24% are very difficult ones including nylon fabrics, car parts, and medical storage containers.
The whole situation with plastics and regulations concerning the use and disposal create a challenge for the chemical and plastic industry, for a good reason. The companies working in these sectors have to find a way how to implement more environmentally friendlier ways to their production and as well guarantee the possibility of the circular economy by taking every part of the product life cycle into the consideration. People pay more attention to their consumption habits by using reusable bags for shopping and try to sort out their waste at home, so companies need to take this as their business strategy. Manufacturing with less pollution and using renewable resources boosts customer satisfaction as well because they are more aware of the impacts to global warming than ever before. The challenge creating and focusing more eco-friendlier ways isn’t necessarily a bad thing, with a good innovation it’s going to help find new ways to do business and increase the competitiveness, which is going to end up creating more jobs available. All the people globally need to be involved, we have to do is work together to live more eco-friendly and reduce pollution.