In fifty years, plastics — or polymers — have revolutionized our lives. We've produced and consumed — then thrown away — more than 8 billion tons of it. Too often we've simply tossed it outdoors as litter. Now it's time for solutions: to produce less waste, emit less carbon and turn the plastics industry into a circular economy leader. Total has realized you can't do it alone. Spotlight on a comprehensive, complex process.
Plastics, everywhere, every day
The first people to develop plastic were the Hyatt brothers, printers in the state of New York who in 1870 proposed cellulose nitrate, or celluloid, for a contest to replace the ivory used for billiard balls. They improved on a patent filed in 1862 by Alexander Parkes for a substance that was a mixture of camphor and cellulose. Did they realize they were opening the doors to a major revolution? The historical record is silent. But plastics are now invaluable to us in packaging, building, transportation, medicine, electronics and an infinite number of everyday applications. Tremendous technological advances have been made in the last fifty years, notably with the advent of or composite materials.
There are at least two reasons for plastics' success. The first is the remarkable practicality of polymers, the technical name for plastics. Nearly as dense as wood and water, from 0.8 to 1.2, their transformation temperature ranges between 200 and 300°C. They're virtually endlessly malleable, allowing them to be molded into highly complex shapes using simple, energy-efficient manufacturing processes. In comparison, their wood, metal, glass, fabric and stone counterparts are heavier — eight times heavier in the case of steel — and require more energy or steps to be shaped into products. Temperatures to work glass, for example, can reach 1,500°C.
The second reason is cost. Polymers are a collection of monomers — simple carbon molecules derived from hydrocarbons — assembled by a catalyst, a sort of "molecular glue." The technical strides made in the last half-century, mainly on catalysts, have both created economies of scale and lowered energy bills. Jérôme Thierry-Mieg is business manager, flexible packaging & personal care for Total Polymers Europe. An engineer who has devoted his entire thirty-year career to polymers, he stresses that "Catalyst chemistry is very cutting edge because it's central to the polymerization process. That makes it strategic for development work. To give a key example, you can produce five to sixty kilograms of polymers with just one gram of catalyst."
Plastics have found their way into every aspect of our daily lives. If they vanished with the wave of a wand, the world would look radically different. Packaging (40 percent of the market)1 wouldn't protect products as well, housing (19.7 percent of the market) would be less well insulated, vehicles (10 percent of the market) would be heavier and less fuel efficient, electronics (6.2 percent of the market) likely wouldn't exist and medicine would be less effective, with all the associated implications for development, health and convenience.
Yet despite the incomparable services they provide, the 350 million tons2 of polymers produced annually in the world are facing big challenges, especially environmental ones.
Total works with its customers and suppliers, as here with Oerlemans Packaging, to design and develop more efficient — including eco-efficient — polymers.
Collection and recycling take center stage
The unfortunately infamous "seventh continent" — called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or GPGP — has been grabbing headlines for several years. It is a vortex of various types of difficult to biodegrade trash, located in the central North Pacific Ocean. It is comprised, among other things, of 250,000 tons3 of microbeads that marine animals tend to mistake for food. Thierry-Mieg sees two major causes of the problem. "It comes down to individual behaviors and sectors," he maintains. "Littering the outdoors with your plastic waste guarantees it will make its way into the oceans. And if waste collection, sorting and treatment processes don't exist, changing individual habits will be difficult. So you have to work on both angles."
Waste processes and systems are well organized in Europe. In 2014, 30 percent of the 25 million tons of plastic waste produced was collected and recycled. The European Union wants to double that percentage by 20254. In developing countries, the main source of plastic pollution, systems have yet to be created. Unlike for materials such as glass or aluminum, no small-scale, non-industrial system has emerged for plastics. Trash is tossed outdoors locally, but becomes a problem globally.
"At Total, we don't shirk our responsibility as an industrial operator. Our response is to get more involved in prevention, recycling and stepping up the use of recycled plastics in our products," says Thierry-Mieg. "To that end, we're a founding member of Operation Clean Sweep®. Its partners, who are all from the plastics sector, have pledged to reduce the discharge of pellets5 into the marine environment during production, transportation and processing." A sign of this commitment is the giant blower system at the Feluy production site6 in Belgium, which blows pellets off trucks before they leave the facility. "It collects three tons each month that won't find their way back into the environment."
The other side of a more circular economy is to develop products that incorporate recycled materials, in the Total Ecosolutions7 range. "A used polymer doesn't have the same properties when it's recycled, because it has undergone oxidation. Our R&D teams helped us launch a polymer family called Lumicene Supertough® in 2013, which restores recycled materials' original properties. It enables us to add recycled materials to new resources. Lumicene Supertough® is a recycled polymer booster," says Thierry-Mieg.
For Total, the challenge is to expand these technologies to significantly impact the market. But it's a multiplayer game: Institutions can set up the recycling systems and set goals; individuals need to take full measure of their behaviors; and brand owners, in regular contact with their customers, definitely have some educating to do. "If we want to win the recycling battle, we have to leverage economies of scale," insists the Total engineer. "However, recycled materials don't always have the same aesthetic properties. In some markets, consumers like shiny packaging. We have to work with our most engaged customers to make the necessary trade-offs and win this round. Time is running out."
• For more on the subject: Total's eco-efficiency solutions
When plastics compound climate issues
Because polymers are a hydrocarbon derivative, they are observed to determine how responsible they are for climate disruption. Monomer carbon, a by-product of fossil fuels, stays solid as long as it's plastic. It is only released into the air in the event of uncontrolled incineration. It can therefore remain non-gaseous carbon for as long as it's in its processed state. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, for example, has determined that 14 percent of the plastic packaging made in the world each year is incinerated, the same percentage is recycled, and the rest is either landfilled (40 percent) or litters the environment (32 percent)8. "We're committed to making affordable, clean polymers," says Thierry-Mieg. "The other major feature of products in the Total Ecosolutions catalogue is a smaller carbon footprint. So our goal is to develop tougher polymers we can use in smaller quantities, because that saves on raw materials." The figures speak for themselves. The gains in terms of CO2, resulting from the reduction of fossil carbon, are in the order of 25 percent without ever sacrificing on service rendered to the user."
The other R&D angle being explored to cut greenhouse gas emissions is biomass, such as algae and lumber industry waste. Total is examining multiple options. "Total has already invested in a unit to make polylactic acid, or PLA, a plant-based plastic," says Thierry-Mieg. "It's a joint venture with Corbion, a global leader in the industry. The idea is to ferment sugar to obtain a vegetable-based monomer that can be processed into plastic after polymerization." Other possibilities are also being examined. One is to recycle used vegetable oil, which can be put through a steam cracker after treatment to produce, once again, monomers that are the building blocks for plastic. Start-up is scheduled for this summer in La Mède, in southern France.
Now that it has revolutionized our lives, plastic is embarking on its own revolution, both environmental and industrial. "No one can claim to be the sole driver of this change," as Jérôme Thierry-Mieg points out. "We're combining our efforts with those of our customers, partners and end users to find optimized packaging solutions. The cost of these new polymers is currently too high and it's an exciting challenge to find affordable, acceptable solutions together."
A daunting challenge: in 2018, everyone living on the planet will use 65 kilograms of plastic.
1 PlasticsEurope, Plastics – the Facts 2017
2 PlasticsEurope, Plastics – the Facts 2017
3 Source: Plos One
4 A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy
5 Small beads of plastic that customers can use, when melted, to make a final product.
6 Total has two sites in Feluy: its biggest polymer production plant in Europe and a Research & Technology Center.
7 Since 2009, the Total Ecosolutions program has proposed innovative solutions that significantly outperform the market standard in terms of environmental impact across their life cycle.
8 The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking the Future of Plastics. In Europe, figures are: 84% of the plastic packaging are collected, 41% are recycled, almost are incinerated and 20% are landfilled (source Conversio Market & Strategy Gmbh)