Polymore or Polyless? Getting it Straight With Plastics

As Taiwan embarks on a plastics reduction campaign, industries are introducing systems to mitigate the environmental impact of polymers. But can these efforts result in more than a few greenwashed ESG reports?

As a Scandinavian coming to Taiwan, I was shocked by the excessive plastic use here. Plastics were everywhere – fruits and snacks were individually wrapped, people drank from one-time-use plastic bottles, and just about everyone had their daily takeout served in disposable containers.

Fast forward three years and you will find my kitchen cupboard jammed with plastic bags. Beside it stands a 20-liter bag full of empty plastic bottles and fruit containers. I knew this behavior was unsustainable, but the final (paper) straw came when I sat in the pantry with my chicken bento box the other day. My colleague, ever a better environmentalist than I am, politely asked whether I’d considered buying a reusable lunch box.

But although the thought of that PET bottle pile ties a knot in my stomach, I know that not all plastics are evil. For many industries plastics are, in fact, indispensable. Medical devices made of sterile plastic, PVC pipes and window frames, and polyurethane insulation for cars have progressed our lives beyond a point most people realize.

The most voiced concern about plastics regards how they’re used and handled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Taiwanese used 15.2 billion plastic bags in 2018 (just 1% of which were recycled), while more than 4.5 billion plastic bottles were thrown away in 2019. And these numbers are just a drop in the ocean when you consider all the other plastics products disposed of (many of which do end up at the bottom of the sea).

It’s no wonder that Taiwan has made extensive efforts to tackle its consumer plastics addiction. Since July 2019, it has banned plastic straws at all fast-food restaurants and department stores, and in 2020 it extended the ban to all restaurants by prohibiting single-use utensils for dining-in customers. Stores are required to charge customers for plastic bags, which will be entirely banned in 2030.

But Taiwan is not only a big user of plastics – it is also the world’s sixth largest exporter of machinery for producing plastics and rubber products. During the first half of 2022, the island’s plastics and rubber machinery exports rose 6.8% year-on-year, reaching a total value of US$611 million. No amount of reusable coffee cups and metal straws can fully compensate for the environmental impact of those numbers.

So is there a way to make plastics more fantastic, or at least less of a climate nightmare? The short answer is yes. But to understand how, we need to dig beneath the surface of “reduce, reuse, and recycle.”

Salvaging waste

For PLIXXENT, a leading European supplier of polyurethane systems, tracing its carbon footprint is a complicated task. There are no clear standards for evaluating emissions, and getting values for raw materials requires extensive databases. The company produces its own polyurethane, a versatile class of plastics used to make foams, varnishes and coatings, adhesives, electrical potting compounds, and fibers.

PLIXXENT also purchases materials from other manufacturers and supports its customers in specification, design, development, logistics, and aftersales. In short, it’s involved in the entire product lifecycle of polyurethanes.

“At least 90% of our products’ emissions come from the raw material,” says PLIXXENT Product Manager Anna-Katharina De Rosis. “That’s why we actively push our manufacturers to do more to reduce their emissions,” while offering help and support.

De Rosis says that there are two ways to reduce raw material emissions: increasing the amount of bio-based raw materials or expanding the use of recycled materials.

“You can recycle polyurethane, but it will result in a reduction of the chain lengths of the molecules, which means the material is downcycled,” she says. PLIXXENT collaborates with universities and manufacturers through its RePURpose program to develop technologies that don’t reduce the chain lengths. “We want to be an enabling partner for companies that produce recycled or biobased raw materials and give them a platform to test the quality of their products.”

De Rosis notes that the industry faces another gargantuan challenge: collecting used materials for recycling. The first polyurethane product with large-scale collection efforts for recycling has become mattresses, since most countries already have an existing collection infrastructure.

But recycling begins not at the end of a product’s lifespan but at the manufacturing stage, notes De Rosis. “When you want to enable products to be recycled, you need to start in the design and formulation phase to make recycling possible later on.” 

PLIXXENT Product Manager Anna-Katharina De Rosis says her company encourages manufacturers in its supply chain to lower their emissions.

This view is shared by the recycling industry. Jim Tai, general manager of recycling company REMONDIS Taiwan, emphasizes that the reduction of virgin plastic use will depend heavily on whether manufacturers and designers apply a design-for-recycling model. But doing so would require more extensive communication between all parties involved in the product lifecycle.

“They need to listen and understand our challenges and the suggestions coming from our recycling plant,” says Tai. 

The most extensively recycled plastic material today is PET, or polyethylene terephthalate. PET is broadly used due to its lightweight, durable, transparent, safe, shatterproof, and recyclable properties. It is safe for food contact, resistant to microorganisms, biologically inert if ingested, corrosion-free, and resistant to harmful shattering.

Taiwan boasts one of the highest PET recycling rates in the world at 95%, according to the Executive Yuan. The island’s commitment to recycling has enabled companies like German-based REMONDIS to expand their operations in Taiwan.

“The majority of our operations is in plastic recycling, and we cover every kind of post-consumer plastics,” says Tai. “Last year, we also extended our plastic recycling business by setting up a new plant in Changhua with an NT$1.5 billion investment.” He adds that apart from recycling, the company works with customers to find ways to reach circular economy targets through, among other efforts, converting unrecyclable waste streams into alternative fuel to substitute coal.

Recycled PET, or rPET, is widely used in Taiwan in the textile industry, but an announcement by the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration in May this year could change product demand.

The agency has set up an application process for using rPET chips and flakes in food containers, utensils, and packaging manufacturing, an already widespread practice in the U.S. and Europe. Used PET food containers can now be processed (following evaluation and approval) before they’re reused as raw material.

Tai is cautiously optimistic about the news. He says rPET usage in food packaging has been a talking point in Taiwan since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but past scandals have made people nervous about the safety of recycled materials used in this manner. 

“Technically, there is no problem” with using rPET in food containers,” he says. “But if I tell you that the container you’re eating out of is made of recycled materials, there is still a mental hurdle that needs to be overcome.”

Taiwan is a unique market in its extensive application of rPET, adds Tai. In some European countries, rPET is generally used only in the manufacture of food and beverage containers, but Taiwanese manufacturers have managed to include it in a variety of applications, many of which have a more meaningful environmental impact.

“If we have a chance to apply rPET to materials with high value and long lifespans, that could be a better way to extend the material’s life,” says Tai. “The lifespan of food containers is very short – usually no more than six months. And recycling is not endless because the product will naturally break into pieces.”

Jim Tai, general manager of REMONDIS Taiwan, hopes that stakeholders can collaborate more closely to enable efficient plastics recycling.

Both Tai and De Rosis say that to fully utilize recycled plastic materials, governments need to involve themselves more deeply in the process, conduct open-minded communication with recyclers and manufacturers, and encourage manufacturers to design for recycling.

“From time to time, we will provide feedback on what kind of material is unsuitable for recycling and will damage the recycling system, such as bioplastics or PLA, which degrade in the recycling process and pollute the clean rPET stream,” says Tai. “This should come back to the government and be revised into law to help manufacturers change the design to make the recycling smoother. That part is still lacking.”

Carbon-captured desires

One alternative that chemists have been chasing for more than a decade seems – at first glance – to be the answer to the plastics problem: polymers made from already emitted carbon dioxide.

Carbon capturing is effectively employed by companies like BASF, the world’s largest chemical producer. The company has utilized its own Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS) technology, called OASE, for several applications by capturing waste carbon dioxide from manufacturing facilities, such as its own ammonia plants. Externally, it has licensed its technology to third-party projects that have successfully captured and transported carbon dioxide to a storage site.

“CCUS technology is on the rise as companies and countries around the world strive to reduce emissions,” says Kin Wah Chay, managing director of BASF Taiwan. “We are proud to support more industries in navigating tightening carbon emission regulations with our advanced OASE technologies.”

Clients use BASF’s technologies to produce pipeline natural gas, liquefied natural gas (LNG), and other chemicals. “Sometimes, clients also use the captured CO2 by recycling it back to their plants’ processes or offering it to others, who in turn use it in food and beverage production, for example.”

In a similar feat, Formosa Plastics’ Kaohsiung factory completed a pilot carbon capture program in January this year in a project that will collect and purify around 30 metric tons of CO2 annually. The carbon dioxide can then be turned into methane and ethane.

Some companies are now looking to apply comparable methodologies to produce plastics. Most notably, German polyurethane and polycarbonate company Covestro’s plant in Dormagen has already managed to produce polyols for polyurethane composed of 20% recovered CO2. The vision, according to the company, is that carbon dioxide can be captured and used to produce a range of products, including polymers, cement, drugs, and fuels.

“The recovery of CO2 and its reuse as a raw material is still in the experimental phase or in the first steps,” Covestro explains on its website. But research shows that it is “technologically possible for the chemical industry to recover CO2 and use it as a carbon source for the production of polymers,” the company says.

So, if we can expand the technology to capture carbon dioxide and turn it into plastics, could we reach net-positive production?

Bursting the plastic bubble

Not really, at least not for a while. De Rosis promptly answers “no” when I ask whether her company is using or seriously considering using carbon capture technology to produce plastics. And she’s not alone.

Harsh rebuttal to the idea of carbon-captured plastics came in a report titled Plastic is Carbon – Unwrapping the “net zero” myth, released in October last year by nonprofit environmental law firm Center for Environmental Law (CIEL) in collaboration with the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and the Plastic Solutions Fund.

“The process of capturing carbon dioxide and producing hydrogen generates carbon emissions, producing no net benefit when compared to virgin fossil fuel plastic production,” according to the report. “Furthermore, many additives essential to the plastic production process are themselves derived from fossil fuels, so it is fanciful to think that plastic can be ‘fossil-free.’”

The report adds that even if carbon capture technology could be employed in a more efficient way, the plastic itself will eventually release the carbon when it’s burned or degrades over time.

Industry is making “cellophane-thin arguments to portray plastic as part of the climate solution, distracting policymakers from the real solution of reducing plastic production,” reads the report. Perhaps using industrial carbon dioxide to produce plastics could mitigate some of the negative effects, but achievement of net-positive production is likely decades away.

By all accounts, the road to net zero is long and must be traveled step by step. Both De Rosis and Tai posit that any meaningful changes will require extensive effort and support from governments in the form of clear regulations and public-private partnerships.

“If we can transform our energy sector, increase the amount of recycled material, change the chemical building blocks of materials, and set up effective recycling systems, I do believe we can reach net zero,” says De Rosis.

In the meantime, I took a trip to IKEA and bought a glass food container. While we wait for sustainable solutions to develop, I hope that this tiny contribution – and the NT$3 discount for bringing my reusable container to the bento restaurant – will at least help me sleep better at night.