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Plastic: a valuable resource in achieving the circular economy

Design Innovation in Plastics takes a view on the role of plastics as a valuable resource, with the help of its key industry sponsor, Covestro, and finds out what the industry is doing to become more sustainable and prevent waste.

Covestro stand at K Fair

Plastics are incredibly versatile, multi-use materials. However, they have been negatively portrayed in the media of late because of the damage they can inflict upon our planet, primarily due to careless disposal and lack of infrastructure for collection and recycling.

But plastics are used to make so many things, that our lives would be the poorer without them. Plastics help to enhance other products to make them more sustainable. Products made from plastic help save human lives and many inventions are clearly benefiting our environment such as lightweight plastic bottles to replace glass.

Much of the life-saving and life enhancing equipment found in hospitals is made from plastic: from blood bags to syringes, drips, heart pacemakers, artificial limbs and so on. Nor should we forget those other things which many of us depend upon, such as spectacles and contact lenses.

Appropriately formulated plastic foam is used extensively in insulation for housing and commercial buildings, which significantly reduces their energy consumption and carbon footprint.

Plastics feature also heavily in transport sectors: for example, they help to make vehicles and planes lighter and more fuel efficient without adversely influencing body strength as well as enhancing comfort.

Solar panel powered systems based on plastics are now used to run cold storage units, where rural farmers in remote places around the world without a connection to the electricity grid can keep their crops fresh for longer.

Another generator of clean energy, wind turbines, are also constructed using plastics, to create extra long, light and stable turbine blades.

In the food industry, some of the thin, plastic wrappings on products such as cucumbers enable vegetables to last up to three times longer, meaning less waste and less frequent deliveries in carbon-emitting transport. At the end of their useful life these films can be incinerated to recover their energy.

The reality is that some plastics only become a problem when they are discarded incorrectly.

There are many well documented ways how we as individuals can do our bit to help reduce plastic waste. Also, the plastics industry itself is making huge efforts to make its products designed for reuse, repair and recyclability and to come up with alternative materials other than crude oil to produce plastics which are better for the environment.

Design Innovation in Plastics’ industry sponsor, Covestro is constantly pushing boundaries to make the world a brighter place – improve people’s lives and protect the environment. The company has launched a strategic programme to advance and fully embrace the circular economy and the use of non-fossil raw materials in plastics production.

The goal is to shape the transition from a disposable linear economy to a circular economy with as many partners as possible and help open up entirely new business opportunities for the elimination of waste.

Going forward, Covestro intends to increasingly design plastics from the outset so that they can be effectively reused, repaired or recycled. At the same time, plastic products must last as long as possible and be recovered to avoid waste.

According to Covestro CEO, Dr Markus Steilemann, the plastics industry can and must drive the comprehensive change to achieve a circular economy.

"Society, but also industry, must produce less waste. Above all, waste has to be disposed of systematically and must no longer end up uncontrolled in the environment” he says. “Plastic waste in our oceans is essentially the result of inadequate waste management. Plastic in itself is not the problem and should not be prohibited. On the contrary, high-quality plastics are a problem solver and are urgently needed – for renewable energies, new forms of mobility and sustainable construction, for instance."

With used plastics increasingly seen as a valuable resource, there is a great deal of work going on with partners to intensively develop innovative recycling methods.

Companies like Covestro are working worldwide for better waste management such as stopping the flow of plastics into our oceans – for example in the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, of which Covestro is a member. This is a worldwide company network that has been active since early 2019.

In the new Circular Plastics Alliance, the company is also working with numerous other businesses and organisations to promote the recycling of plastics in Europe.