Plastic waste is one of the biggest pollution problems in the world, as the ubiquitous material chokes everything from the smallest of waterways to the ocean.

The industry needs a “paradigm shift” if it is to meet sustainability targets, says energy and resources consultancy Wood Mackenzie.

“This shift, a term we call the materials transition, is the process through which we account for – and seek to minimise – the costs of extracting and disposing of raw materials consumed in the global economy,” Guy Bailey, Wood Mackenzie head of intermediates and applications, said.

“The materials transition is driven by societal concern, regulatory interventions and technological innovation.”


ASX companies riding recycling wave

There is a small movement in Australia towards high tech recycling, as outlined for e-waste by Stockhead this week, and the ASX is home to 10 companies working in the recycling space more generally.

Three of these companies are in the plastics industry.

Integrated Green Energy Solutions (ASX:IGE) recycles plastics and turns the residue into road-ready fuel.

Secos Group (ASX:SES) makes compostable plastic and sells it to packaging companies.

And Leaf Resources (ASX:LER) produces sugars from biomass that could replace the petrochemicals used in plastic bags.

Neither IGE nor Leaf yet make money, with both focused on building the manufacturing facilities that will form the basis of their operations.

IGE has plans in Amsterdam, Thailand, the US and Northampton in the UK. Leaf is focused on Malaysia, a key plastics manufacturing location.

Secos has been transitioning the business from a legacy films sector — the materials that are used to cover products such as nappies and sanitary pads — to compostable plastic resins.

Revenue is ticking upwards slowly and the company is forecasting that figure for the full year to rise by 0.9 per cent to $21m, and for the loss to be slashed by 72 per cent to $1.2m.

The company had a big win in July when Woolworths (ASX:WOW) chose Secos to supply two types of bin liners, and a month later with a $3m per annum contract with US pet supply company JC USA for compostable pet waste bags.

Wood Mackenzie’s Bailey says competition for new materials, such as the bio-polymers produced by Secos, combined with changing consumer trends as “rampant e-commerce” is supported by more durable packaging applications, could lead to a world where packaging doesn’t require any net new inputs from the energy and petrochemical sectors.


Stopping the landfill tsunami

Bailey’s focus is on recycling to prevent 382 million tonnes of packaging plastic waste going into landfills between 2020 and 2040.

He says this is possible if there’s a significant increase in volumes of packaging going through mechanical recycling processes, and significant investment in chemical recycling technologies and capacities.

“It’s clear to see that chemical recycling has the potential to significantly increase recycling levels. However, the impact of this on the value chain will depend on how circular the recycling chain is,” Bailey said.

“For instance, how much recycled plastic is ‘downcycled’ into non-circular products – such as reclaimed plastic bottles recycled into polyester fibres – and the precise split between recycling routes.”