Plastics have brought many benefits to mankind, but they also come with a host of problems. These vary from high energy consumption during production to carbon emissions and residual microplastics that contaminate food chains. Societies struggle with these problems and several high-tech solutions have been proposed. However, the most promising solution is probably to use fewer different kinds of plastics and keep them as basic as possible.
- Despite efforts (in developed economies) to reduce the demand for single-use plastics (e.g. shopping bags and straws), the market for plastics is still expected to grow in the coming decades. Even more so, the International Energy Agency expects that growth in plastics (and other petrochemicals) will offset slower growth of demand for (crude) oil and natural gas from the transport sector.
- In developed economies, total plastic consumption varies from almost 100kg/capita (in South-Korea and Canada) to 62 kg/capita in Western Europe. Most growth can be expected to come from China (which is still at “only” 45 kg/cap) and especially from India (9.3kg/cap) and Africa (5.5 kg/cap).
- Currently, about 20% of non-fiber plastics (e.g. packaging material) is recycled and this percentage has shown steady growth thus far. The rest is either incinerated (sometimes to generate power) or ends up in landfills or the natural environment. By 2050, a little over 40% is likely to be recycled. Recycling of synthetic fibers (e.g. used in textiles) is negligible thus far.
- The bulk of plastics that end up in the world’s oceans come from Asia and Africa, where waste management is less advanced than in the West. Much of this plastic waste is carried by rivers and only ten rivers are responsible for 90% of marine plastic debris. At current rates, by 2050, oceans will contain more kilograms of plastic than fish.
- Currently, 11 types of plastic account for about 80% of total production (in Europe) and most of these are recyclable. There are, however, many more polymers in use for specific (niche) applications. To recycle all of these types into valuable new products, elaborate means of separating waste streams are needed.
- A great variety of businesses and industry organizations have pledged to boost the recycling of (packaging) plastics (e.g. the U.K. Plastics Pact). So far, governments (e.g. the EU) have by and large relied on such voluntary efforts to spur recycling.
- Lego has introduced sugarcane-based polyethylene pieces (e.g. used in Lego trees), but it still uses 20 other oil-based polymers for which no bio-sourced alternative is yet available. Moreover, the bulk of its production (80%) relies on acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), for which there may never be an alternative.
Connecting the dots
Simply doing away with plastics is not an option, nor is it desirable. As we noted before, the use of plastics brings many benefits (e.g. reducing food waste) and it is not necessarily more harmful than alternative materials. To illustrate, a plastic bag can be used only a couple of times, but a cotton bag is not necessarily sustainable either and needs to be used hundreds of times to make it “better” than a plastic one. Similarly, plastic straws or cups may be used only once and appear unsustainable, but their alternatives need to be used (and cleaned) over and over to outperform their plastic counterparts. Instead, solutions to the plastics problem thus have to align with the actual problem and can involve bio-degradable polymers, alternative sources of monomers (i.e. the basic ingredient) and improved conditions for recycling.
There are two main problems with plastics. First, they are (mostly) produced from oil and natural gas and they thus add to overall carbon emissions when they are burned as waste. Also, the production process in itself takes up a lot of energy (in the U.S. it is responsible for 3% of total primary energy use) and comes with GHG emissions (1% of emissions in the U.S.). Bio-sourced plastics (e.g. from sugarcane, corn or switchgrass) require less energy to produce and when they are eventually burned, they only re-emit carbon dioxide that was captured by the plants in the first place.
Second, the majority of plastics end up in landfills or in the natural environment. In both cases, they may be partially degraded, by sunlight or salt water, into so-called microplastics that are very difficult to clean up and may end up in food chains and, eventually, in our bodies. While there is no direct evidence that this is truly harmful for humans, it is hardly
desirable either. Bio-based plastics may be a (partial) solution from a carbon-emissions perspective, as long as they are not fully bio-degradable they may still end up as microplastics in the marine system (e.g. bio-based polyethylene is chemically the same as its petroleum-derived equivalent).
As they can be sourced sustainably and don’t add to the waste problem, biodegradable polymers are probably the best answer to the plastics problem. However, they are not always suited for specific uses and there are challenges regarding the scale of production (e.g. corn or sugarcane may be better used as a resource for food production than as a packaging material). The same is true for bio-based plastics that, as of yet, also have limited uses and don’t solve the waste problem. Because of scalability, the most promising solution has to be the recycling of used plastics. Currently, this is hampered by a lack of infrastructure for collection and limited willingness among consumers (and businesses) to make the effort of separating waste. On the supply side, the challenge is that not all types of plastic are recyclable; too many kinds of plastics are used, which renders effective separating very difficult or can only yield low-value mixtures, and too often, combinations of materials are used that make recycling more expensive, if not impossible (e.g. the use of PVC labels on PET bottles makes the bottle non-recyclable). In order to enable more recycling of plastic, producers of plastic (packaging) materials will have to start using fewer different types of plastic and remove all problematic forms of “contamination”. These kinds of measures are currently still only taken under voluntary covenants, but when industries don’t deliver on their promises, regulation seems unavoidable.
- According to Qualcomm, the roll out of 5G could counter the plateauing smartphone sales as it will offer a substantial reason for customers to upgrade. However, these companies will need to find other means to fill the gap between the current saturation and the expectation of 5G to only hit the mainstream in 2022.
- Moreover, with the threat of escalating protectionism and trade wars there is a growing risk of a delayed 5G roll out, which could have detrimental consequences for these consumer devices and other tech roadmaps that depend on 5G.
- Semiconductor manufacturers with a broader set of products (e.g. AMD offers both CPUs and GPUs) will be more resilient in the current volatile tech market.
- Within the context of internet technology increasingly becoming a strategic asset, geopolitical dynamics should be considered when looking at industry winners. For instance, some believe that local 5G players are at an advantage, as Chinese companies might face increasing risks of being banned from markets. On the other hand, the further entrenchment of the splinternet will make it increasingly difficult for companies across the tech stack to grow their markets as it becomes more difficult to reach new customers and/or maintain their supply chain.
- Consumer devices will either try to innovate the user experience through software (e.g. smart camera features, OS improvements) or will try to diversify by changing the form factor (e.g. foldable displays, smaller devices).