Sustainability, the circular economy, and climate change were the main themes at the European
Petrochemical Association (EPCA) 53rd annual meeting that took place in Berlin last week. K-Fair, the
world’s biggest trade fair for plastics and rubber, will soon kick-start in Düsseldorf and is expected to have a similar agenda. In between the two, Klaus Ries, Vice President Global Business Management Styrenic Foams at BASF, spoke to IHS Markit about the current public debate on plastic waste, recyclability and what this means for styrenics.

Q: The ongoing public debate about plastic waste, marine littering and microplastics produces negative headlines every other day. Are you concerned?

Ries: I admit that I am worried. The ongoing media attention on plastics is intense and policy makers feel the need to do ‘something.’ The issue of plastic waste is rather complex; yet, it is far from being fully understood, while the temptation to go for easy pseudo-solutions is increasing. For example, banning plastic bags has become quite popular – among politicians but also retailers who try to give their public image a greener shade. There is scientific evidence available on this topic, explaining that paper bags have no better eco-efficiency to plastic bags and that cotton bags would have to be used one hundred times before they are ecologically superior to a plastic bag. The European Union’s Single Use Plastics (SUP) Directive has also followed this pattern. It was hammered together in record time, just before the elections for the new EU parliament and under heavy lobby influence from dozens of highly professional NGOs.

Q: Why do you think NGOs are more successful in their lobbying activities than the industry?

Ries: Look at the pictures in social media: A baby seal strangled by a lost fishing net or a turtle confusing plastic wrap for jellyfish. These are pictures that touch all of us deeply. And a picture is worth a thousand statistics. From there it only takes a small step towards generalization: Plastics are bad, no matter where. All arguments in favor of plastics seem to have been forgotten. Don’t get me wrong, plastic waste does not belong in the environment. We must all together succeed in stopping plastic waste leakage in the environment. Still, we will not achieve this by banning plastics in single-use applications and by simply replacing them with technically, economically and especially ecologically doubtful alternatives.

Q: In your opinion, what must be done about the problem of plastic waste?

Ries: Marine litter is a result of a complex combination of factors: Lack of proper waste collection and waste management infrastructure in important parts of the world. Also, missing or poorly implemented waste-related regulations at national/regional levels, and the slow development of technologies and markets for plastic waste as raw materials as well as the irrational rejection of the incineration of waste for energy recovery. Finally, the lack of education and information for consumers that leads to inappropriate (consumption and disposal) behavior of us as consumers.

This sounds complex, but it does not have to be. In some countries a deposit, refunded when returning packaging materials post-use is working wonders – a beautifully simple start to collect valuable materials and make sure they are chemically, mechanically, organically/biologically recycled or energetically recovered and do not end in the environment.

As BASF, we are committed on several levels to prevent or at least strongly reduce the accumulation of plastic waste in the environment – be it research and innovation in new materials, business models and production processes, housekeeping measures or the development of better waste infrastructure in cooperation with other stakeholders via the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. But it won’t work without governments around the world providing the adequate framework and infrastructure.

Q: The shockwaves from the SUP-Directive are reaching the EU’s member states. How do you see national implementation?

Ries: We observe that the markets in some EU countries are overreacting. Although the SUP-Directive is focusing on single-use items mostly found on EU beaches, there have been cases where brand owners and retailers have also started to substitute non single-use plastic packaging. Alternatives are not proven to be more sustainable. Besides, just replacing one material by another will not reduce litter as such. We must correct this misinformation, focus on consumer behavior, and establish or respectively improve a waste-management infrastructure for collection and recycling in regions where littering is happening.

In the case of styrenics, endangering 500 manufacturing sites, often owned by local small- and medium-sized enterprises, with more than 10,000 employees, might be the outcome of this doubtful legislation. However, I trust that the EU member states implementing the SUP directive can truly assess what national measures do contribute to the original spirit of the SUP directive. And that is to avoid leakage of plastic waste in the environment. Also, governments must provide the appropriate framework and infrastructure for waste management and recycling, which will create markets that allow entrepreneurs to cope with the challenge.

Q: One gets the impression that styrenics are especially in focus. Why do you think that is?

Ries: I do not think this perception is correct. Styrenics-based polymers are a relatively small fraction of the plastics packaging market overall. PE, PP, PET and PVC exceed by far styrenics in terms of volume, also for packaging. That said, they are also found in the environment to a larger extent. Products made of styrene have become an invaluable part of our everyday life. Polystyrene and expandable polystyrene (EPS), for example, help to keep goods safe, and food clean and fresh, and enable construction of energy-efficient buildings, so they play a positive role in the face of pressing societal challenges.

The electric and electronics industry relies upon the unique properties of polystyrene-based products, especially EPS with its special protection performance at extreme light weight, contributing massively to fuel savings. Reaching the CO2 reduction targets of the EU without styrenics, especially EPS, is  impossible.

In addition, the wrong perception about the recyclability of EPS packaging has been stimulated by different stakeholders that call EPS an “uncommon plastic.” The main applications of EPS packaging are in the B2B segment, e.g. transport packaging of white goods and fish boxes. These segments already have a well-established system of mechanical recycling. The recycled re-granulate can be used in various applications like in the production of extruded polystyrene or as a filling material for insulation in building and construction. While EPS is so well-known that it is easily identifiable by almost everybody, it is only a very small fraction of the plastics that incorrectly find their way into the environment.

Q: How are PS and EPS recycled?
Ries: EPS is one of the most easily recyclable plastics. Over the years, many collection and sorting schemes have been set up locally to allow for mechanical recycling. This stems from the product being designed for recycling and an existing market for recycled EPS. The international EPS recycling network, INEPSA, was founded as long ago as 1992. Today, 67% of EPS packaging waste is recovered, of which 33% is recycled and 35% incinerated for energy recovery. This is due to wellestablished recycling routes for EPS in several countries. In Italy, Spain and Norway for example, the mechanical recycling of EPS fish boxes is common practice.

The EPS industry is working to increase the recycling quota further by developing new technologies and organizing the supply chain to implement these technologies. This is demonstrated by the ambitious commitment of the industry outlined in the EUMEPS voluntary pledge to the EU in response to the EU Plastics Strategy. It includes the target to increase EPS packaging recycling from the current 33% to over 50% by 2025.

Q: What is your view on chemical recycling?
We see chemical recycling as complementary to the currently exclusive approach of mechanical recycling. On the one hand, plastics derived from mechanical recycling often cannot reach quality standards required for food-contact applications. Styrenics such as EPS, being produced via BASF’s ChemCycling™ approach, can be used for fish boxes, or transport containers for medical applications or any other application, just like standard EPS. On the other hand, however hard we try, there will always be a fraction of plastics where mechanical recycling is not possible at all or only at the price
of so-called downcycling. Here, chemical recycling is an option for post-consumer packaging which cannot be sorted and separated economically or is too dirty to be mechanically recycled.

With ChemCycling™, the BASF project on chemical recycling, the chemical industry will use plastic-waste fractions to produce an alternative feedstock for the creation of almost any chemical.

Thus, both on the side of the final product and regarding raw materials, chemical recycling will make it possible to go beyond current limitations on our way to true cyclicality.

Q: Last but not least, coming directly from the EPCA conference, what is your outlook for the styrenics industry for 2020?
Ries: The slowdown of the economy, especially in the automotive industry, in the second half of 2019, is also perceptible in the styrenics sector. We have to wait and see how fast the styrenics demand in automotive will recover. With the increasing focus on fighting global warming and reducing CO2 emissions, I expect the construction sector and thus EPS to gain importance. One has to remember that the building stock in the EU is responsible for almost 40% of total energy consumption and around 35% of all CO2 emissions. To capture this enormous CO2 saving potential without EPS as insulation material is simply impossible.

For packaging applications, despite the SUP directive, EPS should hardly be affected. For PS, many initiatives are under way to prove its compatibility with the circular-economy strategy of the EU. A key player here is the Styrenics Circular Solutions platform, where all projects as well as facts and figures can be found.

For European styrene monomer producers, a lot will depend on the amount of imports from the US, which went up after the Chinese government decided to impose anti-dumping duties on US styrene producers. This summer, high import levels have led to a very long market. However, we cannot ignore that Europe, where energy as well as ethylene prices are high, is an increasingly challenging place to produce styrene.

How 2020 really turns out, though, we shall discuss during EPCA in 2021.

-- Vasiliki Parapouli, 

© IHS Markit. 2019