Accelerating plastic recycling in the GCC

Thanks to its ability to transform the molecular structure of a plastic waste stream, chemical recycling provides an opportunity to recover plastic waste and bring it back into the loop at virgin-like quality, comments Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun

Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun is the secretary general of the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA).
Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun is the secretary general of the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA).

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the benefits of plastics. Essential products made of polymers have played and continue to play a key role in helping to combat the pandemic, protecting medical staff, and mitigating the spread of the virus. The abundant use of this valuable material has brought into focus another important conversation about plastic waste and effective waste management. All plastics can be recycled and thus, their value can be retained in the economy for longer.

As a major producer, consumer and exporter of polymers, the Arabian Gulf region has tremendous potential to leverage plastic recycling and adopt circular economy as a solution to plastic waste. By investing in recycling, the region can further help contribute to innovation and the global sustainability agenda, create new job opportunities, and develop more sustainable and lasting plastic waste solutions, while supporting the drive to diversify GCC economies.

In the UAE alone, where total post-consumer plastic waste generation stands at approximately 1.5 million metric tonnes, the recycling opportunity is sizeable. For mechanical recycling alone, a 10,000MT capacity plant can help create between 27-32 jobs, while diverting valuable resources away from landfill.

Chemical recycling, despite being at early development stages, is garnering significant interest from technology developers and global chemical industry leaders as a promising path to move towards circularity and away from the current linear approach (take – make – dispose). Thanks to its ability to transform the molecular structure of a plastic waste stream, chemical recycling provides an opportunity to recover plastic waste and bring it back into the loop at virgin-like quality.

This was the focus of a recent GPCA virtual masterclass, which explored the opportunity for chemical recycling in the GCC region. Speakers at the event highlighted the role of collaboration across technology development, plastic collection, sorting, and plastic recycling, working closely with government, local municipality, and all value chain partners to make plastic recycling viable and cost effective. The industry needs to move towards circularity, focusing on innovation in product and supply chain design, and building plastics with recovery, reuse, and recycling in mind.

However, despite the significant brand owner and regulatory drive towards recycling and recycled content, key issues around the collection and quality of the material as well as processing capability still exist.

In order to create a favourable environment for plastic recycling in the region, federal and local governments must focus on enhanced waste management through source segregation, material recovery and favourable standards and regulatory framework. Increased source segregation can greatly improve not only the recovery of valuable materials but also their quality. Furthermore, regulators can partner with industry and civil society to spread awareness on the benefits of source segregation.

Investing in Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) can enhance the availability of recyclable material. This would have to be coupled with incentives for consumers and businesses to improve recycling rates. We would need regulators to develop recyclate standards jointly with industry as well as regulate the market for recyclates to ensure their availability, price checks and quality control.

Looking to Europe as one of the fastest moving markets for plastic waste legislation, the European Commission has introduced a waste hierarchy which seeks to improve recycling and sorting infrastructure, reduce waste generation, improve eco design, make all plastic packaging reusable, or recyclable and increase the speed of decarbonisation.

Adopting reusability can have the single biggest impact on waste reduction but is also the most difficult to achieve. Prolonging the life of products will require incentives for society to move away from a ‘use and throw’ culture and will need significant investments in product design and business model innovation. Finally, companies that invest in improving resource efficiency must also be rewarded.

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