Rising costs could spell a boom – or bust – for plastic producers

Cheap plastic coffee cups, take out containers, and hundreds of other single-use items have long been a substitute for more durable alternatives made of glass, ceramic, or wood, despite the environmental damage they cause.

Now, plastic’s reputation as cheap is slipping due to a big wave in the price of raw plastics.

The change was driven by increased demand for plastic materials during the pandemic as people bought more takeout and heavily packaged materials. Major storms and maintenance shutdowns at some of the world’s huge petrochemical facilities that produce the plastic also reduced the supply of available plastic granules, explained Bob Masterson, president of the Chemical Industry Association of Canada, the trade group that represents the Canadian $ 28 billion plastics industry.

Plastic granules are small plastic balls that chemical manufacturers use to create new plastic products. They are known to leak from factories or transport trucks, pollute waterways, and contribute to widespread microplastic pollution.

Canadians use about 4.6 million tons of plastic each year, according to a 2019 report. report commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC). The vast majority of this material is so-called “virgin” plastic, plastic made directly from oil or natural gas, and demand for the material is growing rapidly despite its environmental impact. The current rise in prices for plastic products probably won’t curb this demand, Masterson said.

In Canada alone, he noted that Dow Chemical recently announced plans to build a huge manufacturing facility in Alberta in anticipation of growing demand. That growing appetite has fossil fuel companies betting on demand for the material to fuel future growth as the world shifts away from oil and gas, noted a 2020 report from the Carbon Tracker Institute.

Virgin plastic is typically much cheaper than its recycled counterpart, largely because oil or gas is so cheap compared to recycling. About nine percent of plastic in Canada is currently recycled. This is mainly because only the highest value plastic resins can be profitably transformed into new products, and even then fight back as soon as the oil price drops, the ECCC report noted.

Total oil and gas subsidies billions of dollars each year they compound the problem, making it almost impossible for recycled plastics to compete, explained Laura Yates, a plastics activist with Greenpeace Canada. Additionally, recycled plastics are typically of lower value than their virgin counterparts, further reducing their value.

The federal government last year announced plans to try to reverse the situation by gradually requiring companies to include a minimum amount of recycled plastic in new products. Under the proposed rules, by 2030 all plastic sold in Canada must be made from at least 50% recycled plastic. Major companies like Coca-Cola and Unilever have also pledged to require their suppliers to use more recycled plastic, further increasing demand for recycled products, Masterson said.

Still, critics say none of these measures will be enough to end the problem of plastic pollution.

“We need the price of fossil fuels and their products, like plastic, to reflect the real costs, from extraction to production to disposal and pollution,” Yates said.

Cheap plastic coffee cups, take out containers, and hundreds of other single-use items have long been a substitute for more durable alternatives made of glass, ceramic, or wood, despite the environmental damage they cause.

Measures like the proposed federal minimum recycled content mandate “may be steps along the way” to reducing harmful single-use and disposable plastics, but they won’t be enough to solve the problem on their own. He stressed that it is essential to stop the production of these products, either by raising prices or regulating production.

“If rising virgin plastic prices can help corporations rethink disposable plastics in favor of more sustainable and reusable alternatives, (then) that’s a welcome development,” he said.

Reference-www.nationalobserver.com

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