GCC can be in driving seat for recycling
Arabian Gulf countries, as the largest producers of plastics resins in the world, could play a crucial role in the development of a recycling industry in the GCC
By Roberto Ribeiro, President, Townsend Solutions
The unique characteristics of plastics allow them to make a strong contribution to a more environmentally sustainable and resource efficient world. Lightweight, versatile and durable plastics contribute to save energy and other major resources (food, water, etc.) in strategic sectors such as packaging, building and construction, automotive and renewable energy, to name but a few.
Increasing the circularity of plastics by making sure that plastic waste is properly and ever more recovered, so that it does not end up in landfill or in the environment, is important. However, choices should be sustainable and rather than considering resource efficiency aspects at the end of life of a product only, the entire life cycle should be taken into account so that decisions truly help towards reaching this goal.
It is estimated that only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling globally where each year, USD 80-120 billion plastic packaging material value is lost to the economy. With the actual projected growth of production of plastics, and with lack of proper disposal, some researchers predict that, in weight, we will have more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050.
Closer to home, the World Bank states that gross urban waste generation from GCC countries has crossed 70 million tons per annum and is expected to double by 2025. According to a report by GPCA ‘2016 GCC Plastic Industry Indicators’, Oman and Kuwait have the largest share of plastics in total waste generation across the GCC, with plastic waste accounting for more than 20% of total waste generated in-country.
In terms of absolute volume, GCC plastic waste generated in 2016 reached about 13 million tons per year. This is almost triple the polymer volume consumed by polymer processors and contains plastics that go to waste as a result of using imported goods.
Globally, about 10% of solid waste generated is plastics, whereas in the GCC this stands at 18%. The total volume of plastic recycled in the GCC is approximately 1.2 million tons, about 9% of the total plastic waste generated per annum. Although countries like Turkey and Mexico have an even lower rate of plastic recycling, shining examples like Austria, Luxembourg and Germany are benefitting from a zero-waste-to-landfill policy and nearly 100% of waste generated there is now recycled, either through mechanical recycling or through waste-to-energy, enhancing socio-enviro-economic benefits to their economies.
This negative impact from using plastic, no matter if it is right or wrong, raises concerns on the population. NGO’s and the wider public are calling for change and, therefore, impacting policy-makers that are creating more regulations, legislations and bans are becoming more frequent. For the first time businesses and governments are recognizing the need to fundamentally rethink the global plastics system.
While the need for supplementing or updating the Gulf states’ waste legislation is recognized, this should be done keeping in mind that existing environmental legislation still lacks proper implementation and enforcement. Nevertheless, making full use of waste which can be used as a resource should be a priority for the next decade and would make both environmental and economic sense.
Indeed, landfilling remains the cheapest waste management option and unless materials are diverted from landfill through legislative measures, this will remain the preferred waste management option for many of the cities and countries within the region. Landfills are a threat to the environment from the hazardous contaminated air emissions, both carbon dioxide and methane, emitted from the landfill biodegradation and groundwater pollution from leachates (the liquid that drains or ‘leaches’ from a landfill).
Coupled with this is the lack of appropriate waste management infrastructure and the fact that there are technical and economic limits to current waste recycling. Therefore, it is believed that the Gulf countries, as the largest producers of plastics resins in the world, could play a crucial role in the development of recycling, subsidizing policy-makers and other entities with knowledge and information that would drive the application of standardized and value-added business in the plastic chain, developing growth, jobs and wealth to the countries.
To illustrate the positive impact from the recycling industry on job creation, 10 new jobs can be added in the region for each ton of plastic waste generated. This is summing up collection, sorting, transportation and recycling, while taking into consideration that there would be fewer jobs in the landfill process. It is also worth highlighting that for each kg of plastic waste generated, 1.4 kg of CO2 can be saved from being emitted into the atmosphere, making significant contributions to sustainability and improving the region’s environmental footprint which is also in line with the GCC countries’ commitment to the Paris Climate Change Agreement.
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Globally, plastic recycling is gaining momentum and the major petrochemical companies are realizing that they need to be part of the solution, participating in the process of developing products and grades with criteria matching design-for-recycling guidelines, and also recently investing in the recycling industry. For instance, LyondellBasell and SUEZ announcement to purchase European Plastics Recycling Company Quality Circular Polymers (QCP), a Netherlands high standard plastics recycling company. In July 2016 Borealis finalized the acquisition of sister companies mtm plastics and mtm compact, technology leaders in the recycling of mixed post-consumer plastic waste and two of Europe’s largest producers of post-consumer polyolefin recyclates.