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Plastics & Elastomers

Sustainability in Plastics: A Blueprint for Industry Transformation

Khushboo Dem – Sep 27, 2023

TAGS:  Sustainability and Bioplastics    
Sustainable Practices in Plastics Industry
Plastics have played an indispensable role in modern life for decades, offering versatility, durability, and cost-effectiveness. In recent years, the industry has faced mounting pressure to address its environmental impact and embrace sustainability.

Turning sustainable in the plastics industry is not just a matter of corporate responsibility, but a strategic imperative for long-term survival and success.

As consumers and regulators demand more responsible practices, companies that fail to adapt, risk not only reputational damage but also potential legal and financial consequences. Embracing sustainability can lead to:

  • reduced costs,
  • enhanced brand value,
  • access to new markets, and
  • alignment with the growing eco-conscious consumer base

But how exactly do we embrace it? What are the different ways? What should you change?

To address these crucial questions, we asked our community what they thought was the best tactic for this transition to sustainable plastics via an online survey. With around 500 responses, it is clear that some options are starting to look more practical & applied in practice so that those sustainability goals look more realistic.

SpecialChem Survey Results
SpecialChem Survey Results

We know you want to decode these tactics too! So, let’s start exploring these.

Use Materials of Biobased Origin

Materials derived from renewable sources such as plants, algae, and even waste biomass, offer a promising avenue for reducing the environmental impact of plastic production. But how exactly you may ask? Here is how they can help you:

✓ Reduce your carbon footprint: Sources from which the materials are obtained absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during their growth, helping to offset emissions generated during production. This means at the selection step itself, you can kick-start with your emissions reduction goals.

✓ Biodegradability and compostability: Although this characteristic is not true for all, those biobased materials that biodegrade, help mitigate the problem of plastic pollution, especially in single-use applications.

✓ Energy efficiency: Since the production of biobased plastics requires less energy vs. energy-intensive processes involved in extracting and refining fossil fuels. This also contributes to reduced GHG emissions.

✓ Diverse feedstocks: Since the range of feedstocks is vast such as agricultural residues, sugarcane, corn, etc., there is no dependency on specific crops or resources which can thus promote agricultural sustainability.

✓ Role in circular economy: Biobased plastics can be integrated into circular economy models, where products are designed to be reused, recycled, or repurposed. This helps keep materials in use for longer, reducing waste.

✓ Consumer awareness: Consumers are increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of plastics. Companies that use biobased materials in their products often appeal to eco-conscious consumers, enhancing brand reputation and market competitiveness.

How to claim sustainability for the use of biobased plastics?

LCALife cycle assessments (LCAs): LCAs can be used to compare the environmental impact of biobased plastics to that of petroleum-based plastics throughout their entire life cycle (production to disposal).

CertificationsThird-party certifications: There are a number of third-party certification organizations that can certify biobased plastics as being sustainable. These certifications typically require companies to meet certain criteria for feedstock production, manufacturing processes, and end-of-life management.

TransparencyTransparency: Companies should be transparent about the sustainability of their biobased plastics, including providing information about their feedstock sources, manufacturing processes, and end-of-life management plans.
Biobased Origin

Improve Your Products' End-of-life Management/Recyclability

A sustainable future with plastics can be envisioned by improving the end-of-life management and recyclability of plastic products. That is why end-of-life management is a close number two option to claim sustainability. Embracing closed-loop systems where plastics are recycled into new materials reduces the reliance on virgin resources and minimizes waste.

Furthermore, certification and verification of eco-friendly practices can build trust and credibility, reinforcing a commitment to environmentally conscious product life cycles. This evidently means that sustainability can be claimed by managing the recyclability of plastics.

Browse biodegradable and compostable plastics that can help you align with end-of-life strategies.

Biodegradable  Compostable

What are the obstacles that can hinder the recyclability of plastics?

Obstacles Description
Lack of standardization There are hundreds of different types of plastic, each with its own unique properties. This makes it difficult to develop recycling processes that can be used to recycle all types of plastic efficiently
Contamination Plastic recycling can be contaminated by food residue, dirt, and other materials. This can make the recycled plastic less valuable and even unusable
Product design Some plastic products are designed in ways that make them difficult or impossible to recycle. For example, products that combine different types of plastic or that have complex designs can be difficult to sort and recycle

What are the strategies for demonstrating sustainability through effective recyclability management?

✓ Material selection: Some plastics are widely recyclable, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and polypropylene (PP). These become the preferred choice vs. materials with limited recycling options or unclear recycling codes.

✓ Design for recyclability: Start by designing products and packaging with recyclability in mind. Avoid complex, mixed-material designs that are difficult to separate and process.

✓ Recycling labels and symbols: Clearly label products and packaging with recycling symbols and instructions, helping consumers and recycling facilities identify recyclable items. Consistency in labeling aids in proper sorting.
Plastics recycling symbols
Commonly Used Plastics Along with Their Recycling Symbols

✓ Consumer education: Make recycling information readily available on product labels and through marketing campaigns.

✓ Collection infrastructure: Advocate for and invest in improved recycling collection infrastructure in collaboration with local governments and waste management companies. Ensure convenient access to recycling bins and facilities.

✓ Sorting technology: Support recycling facilities in upgrading their sorting and processing technologies to handle a wider range of plastics effectively. Innovations such as automated sorting systems can improve efficiency.

✓ Extended producer responsibility (EPR): Embrace EPR programs that hold manufacturers responsible for the end-of-life management of their products, including recycling. With this, companies can design products with recyclability in mind.

✓ Certification and transparency: Seek certification from relevant sustainability organizations to verify that your products and practices adhere to recycling and eco-friendly standards. Transparency in recycling efforts builds trust with consumers.

✓ Innovation in recycling technologies: Invest in research and development to improve recycling technologies, including the ability to recycle more types of plastics, like mixed plastics or multi-layer packaging. Check out the latest industry news on recycling.

Use Materials of Recycled Origin

When it comes to an ultimate solution for the ‘plastics pollution problem’, recycled plastics can be the answer! They are appealing to eco-conscious consumers, foster innovation, and increase supply chain resilience. This is the third option to demonstrate commitment to sustainability.

How about the performance of recycled vs. virgin plastics?

New recycling technologies are being developed that can produce recycled plastic with properties that are closer to those of virgin plastic. For example, some new recycling technologies can remove contaminants from plastic waste more effectively and can produce recycled plastic with a higher molecular weight.

Another way is using additives to improve the performance of recycled plastics. For example, some additives can improve certain characteristics of recycled plastics, like strength, durability, and heat resistance. Let’s go through the ways now to claim sustainability through the use of recycled plastics:

✓ Resource conservation: Utilizing recycled plastics reduces the demand for virgin plastic production, conserving valuable fossil fuel resources and promoting a more sustainable approach to material sourcing.

✓ Energy efficiency: Recycling plastic typically requires less energy than producing new plastic from raw materials, resulting in reduced carbon emissions and a smaller environmental footprint.

✓ Waste reduction: Incorporating recycled plastics into products diverts plastic waste from landfills and incineration, contributing to waste reduction and alleviating the environmental burden of plastic pollution. Read how to reduce plastic waste.

✓ Circular economy: The use of recycled plastics fosters a closed-loop system, where materials are continually reused and repurposed. This mitigates the need to have newer resources and minimizes waste generation.

✓ Reduced environmental impact: Virgin plastic production is associated with ecological harm, including habitat disruption and pollution. Using recycled plastics mitigates these negative environmental consequences.

✓ Regulatory compliance: In many regions, there are laws and regulations encouraging or requiring the use of recycled materials in certain products, and adhering to these regulations can bolster a company's sustainability claims. For example, California has a law that requires all plastic beverage containers to contain at least 25% recycled content by 2025. The European Union has a number of directives and regulations that promote the use of recycled materials in products, including the Packaging Waste Directive, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, and the End-of-Life Vehicles Directive.

✓ Certifications and labels: Products incorporating recycled plastics can often earn certifications or eco-labels, providing tangible evidence of a company's dedication to sustainability.

✓ Resilient supply chains: The integration of recycled plastics can enhance supply chain resilience by diversifying sourcing options and reducing vulnerability to fluctuations in virgin plastic availability and pricing.

✓ Market competitiveness: Companies that incorporate recycled plastics may gain a competitive advantage by demonstrating environmental responsibility and aligning with the preferences of sustainability-minded consumers

Be More Resource-efficient (Less Consumptions, Less Wastage..)

Using fewer resources is equivalent to less burden on the environment. The fourth option of resource efficiency can be achieved through a variety of means:

Being resource-efficient is a fundamental component of claiming sustainability in several key ways:

✓ Reduced environmental impact: Resource efficiency involves using fewer resources to achieve the same or better results. This directly leads to reduced environmental degradation, including lower energy consumption, reduced emissions, and minimized habitat disruption, which are all critical aspects of sustainability.

✓ Conservation of finite resources: By using resources more efficiently, businesses and industries can extend the lifespan of finite resources such as fossil fuels, minerals, and freshwater. This contributes to long-term sustainability by ensuring these resources are available for future generations.

✓ Cost savings: Resource efficiency often leads to reduced operational costs. For example, using less energy or water in production processes lowers utility expenses, which can enhance a company's financial sustainability and competitiveness.

✓ Waste reduction: Resource-efficient practices generate less waste, decreasing the need for waste disposal and management. This can lead to cost savings and a lower environmental footprint.

✓ Improved productivity: Streamlining resource use often goes hand in hand with process optimization, leading to improved productivity and product quality. This can result in greater economic sustainability and profitability.

✓ Resilience to resource scarcity: As resources become scarcer or more costly due to factors like climate change or geopolitical instability, businesses that prioritize resource efficiency are better equipped to adapt and remain resilient.

✓ Compliance and reputation: Resource-efficient practices often align with environmental regulations and consumer expectations for sustainable business practices. Complying with these regulations and meeting consumer demands can enhance a company's reputation and brand value.

✓ Supply chain sustainability: Resource-efficient supply chains are less vulnerable to disruptions caused by resource scarcity or price volatility. This resilience can benefit both a company and its partners.

✓ Long-term viability: Sustainability is fundamentally about ensuring that human activities can be maintained indefinitely without compromising the well-being of future generations. Resource efficiency is a key pillar of this long-term viability.

In a nutshell, by minimizing waste, conserving resources, and operating more efficiently, businesses can reduce their negative impact on the planet while positioning themselves for long-term success in an increasingly resource-constrained world.

Related Read: What are the 4Cs that suppliers should take to achieve circularity in plastics?

Lower Your Products' Carbon Footprint

The carbon footprint of the plastics industry refers to the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted throughout the lifecycle of plastics from the extraction of raw materials to the production, use, and disposal of plastic products.

The plastics industry has a significant carbon footprint, accounting for about 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is because plastics are made from fossil fuels, which are burned to extract and process the raw materials and to produce the plastic resin. Additionally, the transportation of plastic products and the disposal of plastic waste also contribute to the industry's carbon footprint. Following are some ways to address this fifth tactic to claim sustainability:

Renewable1 Use renewable resources to produce plastics. This can be done by using plant-based materials, such as cornstarch or sugarcane, to produce bio-based plastics.

Design1 Design products to be more durable and reusable. This can help to reduce the amount of new plastic that is produced and the amount of plastic waste that is generated.

Reduce Packaging1 Reduce the amount of plastic packaging used. This can be done by using less packaging, by designing more efficient packaging, and by using recycled content in packaging.

Recycled1 Recycle and compost plastics at the end of their life. This can help to reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills and incinerators.

What are the compelling reasons to lower the carbon footprint in the plastics industry?

✓ Mitigating climate change: Reducing carbon emissions from the plastics industry directly contributes to global efforts to mitigate climate change. Plastic production, particularly from fossil fuels, is energy-intensive and a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Lowering emissions helps limit global temperature increases, reducing the severity of climate-related impacts.

✓ Meeting emission reduction targets: Many countries and regions have established emission reduction targets and commitments under international agreements such as the Paris Agreement. Lowering the carbon footprint aligns with these commitments, demonstrating a commitment to sustainability and compliance with regulatory standards.

✓ Resource conservation: Carbon-intensive plastic production processes are often associated with the consumption of non-renewable resources, particularly fossil fuels. Reducing carbon emissions typically involves using resources more efficiently, which conserves finite resources and aligns with sustainability principles.

✓ Energy efficiency: Lowering the carbon footprint often involves improving energy efficiency in manufacturing processes. This can result in cost savings and enhanced economic sustainability for companies in the plastics industry.

✓ Renewable energy transition: Transitioning to renewable energy sources for plastics production, such as solar or wind power, reduces carbon emissions and supports a more sustainable energy mix. It also reduces dependency on fossil fuels.

✓ Market access and opportunities: Sustainability is becoming a key factor in market access and competitiveness. Many consumers, businesses, and governments prefer services and products with a lower carbon footprint, creating opportunities for companies that prioritize sustainability.

✓ Innovation and technological advancements: Pursuing lower carbon emissions often drives innovation in materials, processes, and technologies. This can lead to the development of more sustainable plastics, further enhancing the industry's sustainability claims.

✓ Risk mitigation: Climate change-related risks, such as regulatory changes, supply chain disruptions, and reputational damage, pose threats to businesses. Lowering carbon emissions can help mitigate these risks and enhance long-term sustainability.

✓ Resilience and adaptability: Companies with lower carbon footprints are often more resilient and adaptable to changing environmental and market conditions, ensuring their long-term viability.
Low Carbon Footprint


In conclusion, sustainability in the plastics industry is no longer an option but a compelling imperative. The multifaceted challenges posed by plastic pollution, resource depletion, and climate change demand a radical shift in the way of:

  • production,
  • usage, and
  • management of plastics

Embracing sustainability through the options mentioned above is not merely a commitment to the environment; it is a pledge to future generations and a strategic pathway to enduring success. The journey towards a truly sustainable plastics industry is arduous, but it is one that holds the promise of a cleaner, greener, and more responsible future for all.

1 Comments on "Sustainability in Plastics: A Blueprint for Industry Transformation"
Richard P Oct 18, 2023
While not wishing to allow "Perfect to be the enemy of better", I believe the above article falls short of the circularity mark. Nothing seriously wrong with the individual elements of the concept, although anything that doesn't have total elimination of fossil resources as the end game, is flawed, and e.g. using a fossil based chemical like maleic anhydride to rebuild the molecular weight of polymers for recycling, where prior mechanical recycling is one of the factors causing the molecular weight loss, represents a gap in the circle. If plastics, meaning all plastics, are to become at least as recyclable as glass or metals, that can only be achieved via an energy efficient form of chemical recycling that can take all plastic waste the mechanical recycling industry can't or won't recycle. It needs to be capable of chemically recycling unclassified mixed waste plastics and produce a stable plastic crude oil at high yield, that can be stored and transported. Pyrolysis can't do those things, and geographies with no polymerisation industry, need access to such chemical recycling to be able to ship their plastic crude oil to be re-polymerised into virgin plastics. The total existing inventory of plastics in use and post use, in or on land, and in the oceans, plus renewable biological or greenhouse gas based feedstocks should be more than capable of meeting demand growth for the foreseeable future. Such a technology may be closer than you think. Keep an eye on the MURA development in Wilton UK.

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