INDUSTRY INSIGHTThought Leadership

Polymer waste management global and regional trends

By Anwesha Banerjee, Senior Consultant, and Aparajith Balan, Global Practice Leader, Chemicals and Materials Practice, Frost & Sullivan

Polymers, with their light weight, functional properties and low cost, are major contributors to mega trends shaping the global economy. However, their contribution to waste generation is significant. High landfilling rates and mounting global pressure of environment leakage are important considerations that have raised concerns across regions.

The global perspective

According to Frost & Sullivan, global polymer production, estimated at approximately ~381 MMT in 2021, will  reach ~538 MMT by 2030. Global polymer waste generation, which accounted for about 95% of the polymer production in 2021, will  reduce to ~86% of the production by 2030. Asia currently contributes to ~50% of total waste, and 50% of this is by China alone.

Historically, waste to energy (WTE) was a preferred option for polymer waste management. Growing concerns about emissions associated with WTE have driven efforts toward recycling. Chemical recycling is gradually gaining more attention than mechanical recycling, which often results in inferior product properties. According to Plastics Europe, in 2021 plastic producers in the European Union planned to increase investments in chemical recycling from EUR 2.6 billion in 2025 to EUR 7.2 billion in 2030. Pyrolysis (both solvent and catalytic) will be most adopted in the short term. In 2021 BASF, Quantafuel and REMONDIS partnered to build a scalable pyrolysis plant as part of BASF’s ChemCycling project. Similarly, SABIC collaborated with Malaysia-based HHI to develop polymers from ocean-bound plastics through pyrolysis.

Regulatory landscape in other regions

Governments across the world have set varying regulations to achieve environmental targets.

Europe is the frontrunner in polymer waste management, focusing mainly on packaging. Implementing plastic taxes based on non-recycled plastic packaging waste is an important part of the Green Deal, which aims to reduce carbon emissions and promote the move toward a circular economy. The Circular Plastics Alliance has set a target to use 10 MMT of recycled plastics in new products by 2025. Plastics Europe aims to increase recycled content in plastic packaging to 30% by 2030.

In Asia, policies and frameworks differ significantly among countries. In general, governmental policies are more focused on reducing waste. China was the leading country to ban the import of plastic wastes in 2018. China has also put a strict limit (0.5%) of allowed contamination in imported plastics. Although efforts are being made on the legislation side, there is a varying degree of implementation of these policies. For example, India banned the manufacture, sale and use of single-use plastics in 2022, but implementation remains the key to success. Southeast Asian countries share the same goal of tackling marine waste, yet there is no collaboration in policy implementation.

In the Americas, the US is more focused on increasing recycling rates while Canada is working to reduce waste. The US, which currently recycles about 9% of polymer wastes, introduced the Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act in 2020 as a step to meet its long-term goal to be the global leader in recycling by leading innovation. The Canada-Wide Action Plan on Zero Plastic Waste (phase-I and phase-II) aims to reduce plastic pollution and ultimately achieve zero plastic waste by 2030.

In MENA, packaging largely contributed by low-density polyethylene (LDPE), linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) accounts for the largest share of polymer waste. Apart from this, construction and demolition (C&D) waste and municipal wastes account for a substantial volume. At the GCC level, individual country governments have set their targets to achieve sustainability. Long-term policies are focused on building synergies between industries and creating a closed loop, especially in key countries such as KSA and the UAE.

In most cases, there are no polymer specific waste management plans. For example, through the National Strategy Vision 2030, Saudi Investment Recycling Company (SIRC) plans to increase the waste recycling rate to 85% by 2030. Qatar is committed to making the 2022 FIFA World Cup a carbon-neutral event. There is a gradual drift toward plastic-specific plans in some countries. UAE launched the Scale 360 Initiative in 2019, which aims to achieve circularity in plastics and electronics through advanced technologies. In Abu Dhabi, Coalition Circle (Coalition of Innovation in Recycling towards a Closed-Loop Economy) includes key manufacturers and governmental bodies to expand the closed-loop circular system to combat plastic waste pollution. The Government of Oman, in collaboration with Be’ah, has set up reverse vending machines to collect and recycle PET bottles across the country.

Polymer waste management is still at a nascent stage in the region. Lack of awareness of source segregation and a lack of reliable data on waste characterization have limited recycling options.

Investment is currently focused on WTE since it can tackle mixed waste. WTE is also preferred over recycling due to its ease of scalability and modularity. Recycling is dominated by mechanical recycling methods taken up by individual companies as part of their sustainability strategies. For example, NAPCO has two plastics recycling plants in KSA where it sorts, washes, and mechanically recycles polymer waste to manufacture resins that it can use for converting. Global leaders from the region have circularity initiatives, but these are mainly focused outside the region. For example, SABIC and Plastic Energy have set up an advanced recycling plant in the Netherlands to convert waste plastics into recycled oils to create virgin polymers.

The way forward

GCC petrochemical producers rely on international markets, where end-user companies have set specific sustainability mandates for suppliers. Therefore, regional producers need to implement changes across the value chain to synchronize with the circularity goals of end users and be competitive in the global market. Disruptive research and collaborations are important to develop the ecosystem. The process has to start from the design stage to build easily recyclable polymers. The focus should be on combining technologies—WTE and recycling—to ensure effective waste diversion from landfills. Advancements in technology are imperative to facilitate the recycling of hard-to-recycle polymers, multi-material products and composites. Composite materials will be a priority in the long term. Innovation related to novel upcycling methods will also drive results.

Governments play a pivotal role in transforming the plastic value chain across industries. Establishing national targets for polymer circularity, including mandates for minimum recycled content contribution across key sectors, is important. Additionally, authorities need to specify standards and guidelines for recyclates and strengthen plastic waste incentives and penalties for producers. Investment in infrastructure related to collection, sorting and recycling would be required to overcome the lack of awareness of source segregation and sub-optimal infrastructure.

As the ecosystem develops, more collaboration and value chain partners, including technology providers, recyclers and end users, will join the move toward circularity. GCC players can lead by example and reshape the flow of polymers worldwide.