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The essential transformation of our ever-evolving plastic world

By 2050 the world’s population is expected to reach almost 10 billion with over 70% likely to be living in urban areas. This has significant consequences for people’s standard of living and the materials needed to make the big city lifestyle a reality, according to speakers at the recent Petrochemical and Refining Congress.

Demand for five major polymers in the developing world is forecast to increase to 3.4 billion tonnes by 2040, up from 1.4 billion tonnes over the last two decades. Though recycling practices are actively being improved and expanded and the plastics recycling sector is thought to be closing in on a value of US$ 50 billion (EUR 41 billion), industry experts argue it is unrealistic to assume scrap can ever fully meet worldwide demand.

Essential for tomorrow

We are consuming more plastics than ever. Consider, too, that the so-called ‘delta-cities’, such as Hong Kong, New Orleans, New York or Rotterdam, are home to a combined total of more than 340 million inhabitants – driving consumption to new heights. Then add the fact that an estimated 75% of the infrastructure needed by urban societies by 2050 has yet to be built.

‘Now is the time to consider how we creatively and innovatively close that material gap,’ suggests Damon Hill, business development specialist at Wood, a global oil and energy engineering firm and consultancy. He maintains it would be wise to boost collection schemes in developing countries in order to ensure a more stable and durable source of secondary materials.

Today, the global petrochemical industry it still considered ‘essential’. This is especially true in our post-pandemic world, which has fuelled the already strong demand for plastics in the medical sector. But even products made mostly from virgin plastics have to live up more circular credentials, such as recyclability, recycled content and material compatibility, to name a few.

‘Not science fiction’

‘Growing up in the 70s, I can see how much our world has changed; how fast innovation has moved,’ Hill recalls. ‘If you’d have told me we’d be able to take dirty, end-of-life plastic waste and turn it into a new, valuable product a few decades later, I’d have thought that was science fiction. And yet, we can do that now,’ he adds with a laugh.  

Wood, which is headquartered in Aberdeen, Scotland, believes in creating a ‘future-ready industry’. Having a ‘healthy and thriving’ recycling sector and exploring innovative waste-to-energy solutions is seen as paramount. Hill admits that current plastics recycling processes are not et perfect. But will they ever be – and is that even the point?

‘At the end of the day, we have to look at the bigger picture. We’re at a stage where we’re talking about scaling up recycling solutions, making things more effective and profitable. We’ve taken a problem and are trying to fix it. We’ve come very far already and, based on our track record, I’d say the future is very bright.’

Global trends

In the waste-to-energy market, most growth is in Europe, which currently accounts for 60% of the global market share. Market analysts expect this segment to be worth over US$ 2.2 billion by the end of the year. This figure is linked to a compact annual growth rate of at least 3.5% during the period 2021-2031.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that the Chinese authorities have ordered state-run PetroChina to stop trading off crude oil import quotas with local refineries. This move, which is part of a crackdown on excessive fuel production, may cut the country’s crude imports by 3%.

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