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The Circular Future of Polymer Production in Europe

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

At the recent Global Plastics Summit that we attended in Bangkok, there were calls from NGOs and governmental bureaucrats to substantially reduce global fossil-based plastics production by 2040, one such proposal targeting virgin polymer production of 301 million tonnes in 2040 versus 430 million tonnes in 2019, corresponding to a 30% reduction.

The latest proposal for a drastic reduction in virgin polymer production comes from Plastics Europe, the pan-European association of plastics manufacturers. Its industry roadmap dubbed The Plastics Transition targets 26% reduction by 2040 and a 56% reduction by 2050, meaning 22 million tonnes of fossil-based plastics production in Europe by 2050 versus 50 million tonnes in 2021. This will be achieved through a mix of increased levels of usage for mechanically-recycled plastics, chemically-recycled plastics, biomass-based plastics (which are excluded from the global proposal cited above), "reused plastics," and plastics based on carbon capture and utilization. This means 65% of plastics will be "circular," and when reuse and mechanical recycling are taken into account, 48 million tonnes of plastic will be made in conventional polymerization plants, which is slightly less than 2021 production of 51 million tonnes; 6% less to be exact. Reused plastics refers to use of plastic packaging formats that are used multiple times such as beverage cups, rather than single-use packaging formats.

Circular plastics use by European converters and their feedstock

Image courtesy of Plastics Europe

Of particular interest in the white paper published by Plastics Europe is an analysis of the cost of various circular options versus petroleum-derived plastics. By 2050, operational costs per tonne of chemically-recycled plastics are forecast to be lower than fossil-based plastics, although Plastics Europe does concede that "These projected costs are highly uncertain, take rough averages across polymers, and should be interpreted with care." In 2050, plastics produced by biomass are predicted to be 18% more costly to produce than fossil-based plastics, whereas the chemical recycling route is forecast to be 11% more cost effective. In a separate insight, we report on the suitability of pyrolysis oil as a raw material for plastics.

OPEX evolution of production technologies

Image courtesy of Plastics Europe


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