Every day around the world, hundreds of millions of plastic packaging and products are used, then discarded. Only a small proportion find their way into recycling bins, and much of the waste end up polluting the environment due to dumping, open burning and disposal in waterways.
According to estimates compiled by the United Nations, only nine per cent of plastic produced has been recycled since the world started producing plastics in the 1950s. In Singapore, the recycling rate for plastics is an even lower four per cent.
While disposable plastic has many essential uses in our lives, such as medical or surgical devices, there is an urgent need to rethink how the process of producing and recycling plastic can be improved. This requires coordinated action, involving not only governments and manufacturers, but also the end users.
Creating a circular economy
SABIC, one of the world's largest petrochemicals manufacturers, is leading the way towards building a "circular economy" with its vision to create an ecosystem where plastics are reused and remade into new products.
It is the first petrochemical company in the world to scale-up high-quality processes for chemical recycling - a process which turns used mixed plastic back to the original polymer for commercial application - increasing overall recycling rates.
Chemical recycling also produces virgin-like quality plastic that can be used in applications with more stringent requirements such as those found in the food packaging industries.
"This vision requires a total transformation of the value chain. We have been working with our downstream and upstream partners to reinvent and pioneer our way towards a circular economy for the good of people and the planet," says its vice president and regional head for South Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Janardhanan Ramanujalu.
He says: "Today, more than ever, industry needs to respond to the world's environmental and societal challenges by embedding sustainability and recycling into its very DNA. We understand the global market for recycled plastics is expected to grow by US$14.74 billion over the next few years.
"The growth in the use of plastics has put recycling in the spotlight. There is increasing pressure on the industry to utilise resources more efficiently and develop innovative ways to recycle plastics, minimising waste by keeping valuable plastics in the value chain."
Mr Ramanujalu adds that supporting the growth and development of a circular economy -one in which raw materials are used to create new, valuable and durable products - has been a key goal of SABIC's sustainability platform.
Plastic and one of the world's most beloved desserts
Earlier this year, Magnum announced the roll out of more than seven million ice cream tubs made with certified circular polypropylene from SABIC's TRUCIRCLE™ portfolio and services, becoming the first player within the ice cream industry to use recycled plastic. This was the result of a joint collaboration between SABIC and Unilever, the producer and brand owner of Magnum ice cream.
Magnum will introduce the new packaging across all European countries this year, before spreading out to the rest of the world from 2021. Julien Barraux, Global Magnum Vice President, said: "Through this new approach, we hope to lead the food and refreshment industry towards a more sustainable future, paving the way to a circular economy."
SABIC's TRUCIRCLE™ portfolio of sustainable material solutions and services comprise the Saudi company's various innovations in the circular space, including tailored resins for the development of plastic products with improved recyclability characteristics and certification to enable greater traceability along the supply chain.
"We want to give manufacturers access to more sustainable materials. That way, they can give the end-consumer more confidence about buying products with the knowledge that the material can be recycled and repurposed, or that it has been produced in a way that can help protect our planet's natural resources," Mr Ramanujalu adds.
Besides Magnum, SABIC has also worked with industry giants such as Estée Lauder, Tupperware, Knorr's and Tesco to develop and use plastics that can be recycled.
For instance, SABIC recently collaborated across an entire supply chain to recycle plastic collected from Tesco customers into new food-grade packaging used for cheeses. This demonstrated how flexible plastic, that would typically go to waste, can be recycled multiple times into new plastic as a part of a closed loop recycling system.
In addition to working collaboratively with customers, SABIC is also involved in industry-wide initiatives that address issues of littering and improper waste disposal. This typically stems from a lack of adequate waste infrastructure, causing waste to invariably enter rivers, seas and oceans.
SABIC is the founding member of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a grouping committed to various initiatives across the world to tackle plastic waste. The countries involved include India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
Going beyond plastics
Besides its various initiatives to recycle plastic and reduce waste, SABIC has also embarked on several renewable energy projects to reduce its carbon footprint around the world.
In Spain, SABIC's polycarbonate facility in Cartagena is set to become the first large-scale chemical production site to be run entirely on renewable power by 2024.
In Saudi Arabia, a SABIC affiliate operates the world's largest carbon dioxide (CO2) recovery and purification plant. The plant converts the greenhouse gas into fertilisers and other useful chemicals.
Last year, solar panels were installed at its sites in India and Thailand, helping reduce greenhouse emissions by 200 tonnes.
"We hope more organisations will join SABIC to make positive changes across the value chain," Mr Ramanujalu says.
SABIC has operations in over 50 countries and a global workforce of over 33,000. Singapore is home to its Asia-Pacific headquarters as well as an innovative plastics manufacturing facility. A new facility to produce ULTEM™ resins, a polyetherimide material, is scheduled to start operations in 2021.
SABIC has also outlined ambitious targets aligned to the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, relating to resource efficiency, climate change, food security, sustainable infrastructure and preservation of the environment.
Look out for the second instalment of this four-part series, when we look at the industry's best practices for building a sustainable future. For more information about SABIC, click here.