European plastics giants unveil sustainability roadmap with little mention of reduction and reuse
A trade body representing 90% of Europe’s plastic producers has set out plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and to increase circularity, which they claim can be done without reducing production rates.
The ‘Plastics Transition’ document from Plastics Europe lays out a “potential pathway” to net-zero by 2050 for the document.
The pathway includes a 28% reduction in lifecycle emissions by 2030, on 2019 levels, building to a 32-40% reduction by 2040. It only anticipates a 55% reduction by 2050. The residual emissions could be addressed, the document states, using a mix of offsetting and onsite carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.
In contrast, the Science-Based Targets initiative’s net-zero standard, which is open to all sectors, requires companies to commit to a 90% reduction in absolute emissions across all scopes by 2050 at the latest.
Similarly, advice on net-zero planning from the UN-backed High-Level Expert Group cautions against the over-reliance on offsetting or on man-made technologies that are not yet mature at scale.
Plastics Europe sees the sector’s key levers for emissions reductions as maximizing energy efficiency, electrifying production with renewable electricity and switching to alternative fuels.
Its roadmap also emphasizes the importance of switching feedstocks to the sector’s net-zero journey. It states that this is “one of the fastest, most affordable, effective and reliable methods of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the plastics system” in the short to medium-term.
At present, more than 80% of the feedstocks used to produce plastics are fossil-based. Plastics Europe believes this proportion could be brought down to 35% in 2050.
In 2050, it sees mechanically and chemically recycled plastics accounting for almost half of production. Chemically recycled feedstocks scale most rapidly post-2040 while the growth in mechanically recycled feedstocks is predicted to be more moderate and steady.
Achieving these milestones involves Europe’s plastics rate increasing significantly to reach 70% by 2050.
Plastics Europe also sees bioplastics scaling rapidly, from 1Mt of production annually at present to 11Mt in 2050. Similarly, it sees plastics made using captured carbon becoming commercially available at scale in the 2030s and production reaching 3Mt per year in 2050.
The report does acknowledge that reuse is likely to increase in the coming decades. It states that 12Mt of plastic production in 2050 will be avoided due to reuse.
But there are no specific targets set in terms of reducing production and scaling reuse in absolute terms. Plastics Europe does not include overall production levels nor reuse rates as a key circularity indicator.
On its website, the trade body states that “plastics remain irreplaceable for many applications”.
The UN Environment Project’s (UNEP) roadmap for slashing plastic pollution rates globally by 80% by 2040 does highlight the importance of scaling both mechanical and chemical recycling, as Plastics Europe’s did. It states that the global mechanical recycling capacity could grow by 50% in the next four years.
But it also includes a 10% reduction in the production of short-lived plastics products by 2027. It states that at least a fifth of these could be replaced with reusables and the rest with alternative materials.
The UNEP roadmap is intended to support the production of a global Plastics Treaty by the end of next year. The next round of discussions will be held in November. Parties have already agreed to develop a Treaty that does not only cover the end of life for plastics but the whole lifecycle, including a reduction in fossil-fuel-based plastic production.
Searious Business’s founder-director Willemijn Peeters said she was “shocked and disappointed” to see how “the plastics industry, at an association level, is still very conservative and trying to protect the status quo”.
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