INDUSTRY INSIGHTThought Leadership

Sustainability evolution of the petrochemical and plastic industry

By Hani Tohme, MD, Middle East | Head of Sustainability MENA Region Roland Berger

Petrochemicals and plastics serve as crucial building blocks for a wide range of industries, encompassing the production of plastic, rubber, fertilizers, synthetic fibers, and other chemicals. However, their extensive production and use leave a significant environmental and social footprint, including air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and mounting plastic waste. As the world grapples with these challenges, it becomes increasingly crucial to chart a sustainable evolution of the industry.

The global petrochemical market is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of more than 5% until 2030. This growth signifies a remarkable 50% increase compared to 2022 and highlights the pressing nature of finding sustainable solutions to steer the industry toward a more environmentally conscious and socially responsible future.

In this article, we take an in-depth look into the future of petrochemicals and plastics, exploring innovative measures that will shape a greener and more sustainable industry landscape.

The necessary evolution of sustainability in the petrochemical and plastic industry

To reduce the environmental impact of petrochemicals and plastics in a sustainable future, several potential solutions come to the forefront. Among these, the transition from a linear to a circular economy stands as a pivotal measure. This transformative approach revolves around reducing the per capita consumption of materials (e.g., plastics) and maximizing the lifespan of materials through recycling and reuse, as opposed to traditional disposal methods.  Key circular economy principles revolve around the 3R principles: reduce, reuse, and recycle, all contributing to the reduction of the environmental impact.

The development of a circular economy stands as the most impactful measure to directly reduce the environmental effect of the petrochemical and plastic industry. In essence, the less virgin (fossil fuel derived) polymers produced, the less negative impact on the environment. Currently, only approx. 9% of global annual plastic waste is recycled into new products. However, this share is expected to increase in the future. Recognizing the importance of a sustainable approach, companies representing ~20% of all plastic packaging produced globally have committed to using recycled and recyclable plastics while reducing their dependence on virgin plastics, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

In addition to the transition to a circular economy, other measures should also be considered to reduce the environmental impact of petrochemical production. This includes the adoption of sustainable feedstocks, such as biogas, green hydrogen, and recycled plastics mentioned earlier. Utilizing renewable sources and promoting the use of recycled materials contribute to a more sustainable supply chain lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Another solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the implementation of carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) technologies. CCUS captures CO2 emissions from industrial processes, utilizes the captured CO2 for value-added applications, and stores the remaining emissions to prevent their release into the atmosphere. Nowadays, CCUS technology is becoming a cost-effective solution to reduce emissions on a large scale for hard-to-abate industries.

An additional measure to reduce emissions is focusing on improving the overall production and energy efficiency, which includes integrating smart technologies and digitalization into the production process. These solutions enable resource efficiency improvements, emission reductions, and overall enhanced operational performance.

How strategic leaders should drive this transformation

Embracing sustainability is no longer just a moral imperative but a strategic necessity. To thrive in a world that demands environmental responsibility, businesses must adopt a new paradigm, seeing sustainability as a competitive advantage rather than a burden to meet regulatory requirements. Business leaders must recognize that offering environmental-friendly and low-emission products can transform climate-related risks into opportunities that give them an edge over rivals. Decarbonization is no longer solely perceived as a drain on the bottom line; rather, it becomes an investment in future competitiveness.

By reframing the perception of sustainability, organizations can harness its strategic value to drive innovation, enhance brand reputation, attract customers and investors, and effectively mitigate risks in an increasingly sustainability-conscious market.

The impact of the shift toward sustainability

One of the primary benefits of the sustainability shift in the petrochemical and plastic industry is the substantial reduction in CO2 emissions (according to the IEA, CO2 emissions from the entire chemical sector account for ~18% of industrial CO2 emissions). By adopting greener technologies, optimizing processes, and implementing renewable feedstocks, businesses can significantly lower their carbon footprint. This contributes to global efforts to mitigate climate change and minimize environmental degradation.

The sustainability shift in the industry also has far-reaching social benefits. As businesses prioritize sustainability, they drive economic stimulation. Sustainable practices encourage the development of new technologies, processes, and products. This not only fosters economic growth within the sector but also creates job opportunities, enhancing employment prospects and contributing to socio-economic development.

As for the companies themselves, sustainability also serves as a catalyst for higher competitiveness. By aligning with sustainability goals, businesses can meet the evolving needs and preferences of customers, gaining a competitive edge in the market. At the same time, sustainability-driven initiatives contribute to enhanced profitability – by optimizing resource utilization, businesses can substantially reduce their operational costs, increase gross margins and also drive top-line. In today’s world, sustainability and profitability should complement each other, not be at odds with one another.

Providing direction on the road to action 

A successful transformation toward sustainability begins with embedding it as a driving force within the organization. This entails a comprehensive and integrated approach that involves leadership commitment, employee engagement, and the incorporation of sustainability principles into the organization’s strategy, operations, and culture. By making sustainability a core value, businesses can align their actions and decisions with long-term environmental and social goals.

To accelerate sustainability progress, businesses must proactively engage with clients, regulators, industry associations, and other stakeholders. By actively participating in industry-wide sustainability programs, collaborating on initiatives, and sharing best practices, organizations can foster a collective commitment toward sustainability. Constructive dialogue with lawmakers and regulators helps shape supportive policies and regulations that enable and incentivize sustainable practices.

For achieving sustainability goals, it is also important to look at the industry value chain as a whole and build a green ecosystem that spans across different sectors. For instance, the production of green plastics requires the generation of clean gases such as biogas by the energy sector, which in turn requires the collection of food waste from the retail sector. Establishing these interconnected relationships is the key factor of long-term environmental impact reduction and waste minimization throughout the value chain.

Finally, sustainability implementation requires a balanced approach that combines both structural changes driving industry-wide impact and the realization of medium-term and quick wins initiatives. Quick wins and pilot projects provide tangible results and build momentum within organizations, demonstrate the viability and benefits of sustainable practices, paving the way for wider adoption. Simultaneously, structural changes offer long-term, systemic solutions that drive industry-wide transformation. By integrating both approaches, organizations can achieve immediate progress, while working toward sustainable transformation at scale.