We need a well-structured approach that enables sustainable plastic waste management

According to some statistics, as many as 10 new jobs can be added to the GCC region for each tonne of plastic waste generated, summing up recycling, collection, sorting, and transportation, comments Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun

Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun is the secretary general of the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA). Set up in March 2006, GPCA is a dedicated non-profit association, serving its members with industry data and information sources.
Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun is the secretary general of the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA). Set up in March 2006, GPCA is a dedicated non-profit association, serving its members with industry data and information sources.

Plastic waste has dominated global headlines once again, particularly in Europe where a major landmark decision was reached this May. As a final step, at the end of a two-week meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, the Basel Convention, a treaty that regulates the movement of hazardous materials from one country to another, reached a historic agreement.

The treaty requires governments to control the movement of plastic waste between national borders in an effort to eliminate the leakage of plastics into the environment. As part of the resolution, contaminated and most mixes of plastic wastes will require prior consent from receiving countries before they are traded, with the exceptions of mixes of PE (polyethylene), PP (polypropylene) and PET (polyethylene terephthalate).

Mismanaged plastic
Adopted by as many as 187 countries from across the world, the resolution comes at a pressing time for plastic waste management globally and has widely been welcomed and praised by governments and non-profit organisations as a necessary step needed to ensure our planet and environment are protected and preserved for the future generations to come.

Indeed, the mismanagement of plastic waste due to a lack of adequate land-based infrastructure in emerging economies is a major challenge that requires an urgent and long-term solution. As much as three-fourths of ocean plastic comes from uncollected waste from land, with the remaining originating from gaps in the collection system itself.

Among the top contributors of plastic marine litter globally are some of Asia’s fastest growing economies such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and China, which account for a combined 16.7mn metric tonnes of mismanaged plastic.

Gaps in resolution
GPCA welcomes the new resolution for aiming to stop all possible leakage of plastic in importing countries due to unsound plastic waste management. However, certain gaps within the resolution most certainly do exist and ought to be highlighted to ensure such gaps are addressed through further collaboration and the pursuit of multi-stakeholder alignment.

We need to take into consideration that the risks of plastic leakage are significant not only in developing economies, which import plastic waste, but also in developed, exporting countries. Furthermore, the capabilities of plastic waste recycling and availability of well recyclable plastic waste fractions vary significantly. This poses a critical question as to the universal approach adopted by the Basel Convention and its effectiveness and applicability to virtually all importing nations that inevitably will possess a varying degree of recycling capabilities.

As it stands, the selection of plastics adopted currently by the Basel Convention is very stringent, putting unnecessary burdens on certain well recyclable mixed plastics waste qualities and plastic types thus hampering their trade, reducing their sustainability and influencing resource needs and domestic plastics waste leakage globally.

What is needed is a well-structured approach that enables sustainable plastic waste management with zero threat to the environment without hampering the economic and business benefits created by plastic trade and recycling. Such approach would need to regulate unrecyclable wastes currently and further assess more complex cases on their own merit.

Impact on Arabian Gulf
The Basel Convention treaty, which was adopted on 22 March 1989 and entered into force on 5 May 1992, brings home the issue of plastic waste management like no other. Sound plastic waste management is an issue that directly impacts the Arabian Gulf region due to its key role as a major plastic producer and exporter.

In fact, pursuing greater plastic circularity that enables the circular economy and contributes to sustainability is a key focus for regional plastic producers who increasingly recognise the opportunities to stop plastics waste leakage by driving alternative feedstock strategies and increasing the circularity of plastics.

To illustrate the region’s unwavering commitment to sustainability, a newly formed Coalition Circle (Coalition of Innovation in Recycling towards a Closed Loop Economy) comprised of government, NGOs, global and local private companies, has committed to tackling the issue of packaging waste pollution.

The coalition signed a pledge with the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE) to develop a circular economy model to combat the issue of plastic and packaging waste pollution by improving collection. Regulating plastic waste trade and ensuring it is exported in a safe and sustainable manner is only one aspect of tackling the plastic waste challenge we face today.

What we need is to work towards developing the necessary legislation and infrastructure that supports plastic waste to be processed domestically. We must also focus on more harmonised collection and helping to build markets for recycled plastics.

Indispensable role of plastic
Since its inception, GPCA has been an adamant advocate of free and unrestricted trade. The Basel agreement will come into force in mid-2021, which gives the region enough time to start developing the necessary infrastructure to process plastic waste generated in the Arabian Gulf.

To adequately prepare and respond to the upcoming change, the GCC states need to urgently invest in better waste collection, sorting at source, material recovery and recycling facilities. The benefits are immense ranging from job creation, adding further value to the regional economy to ensuring environmental protection through the diversion of plastic waste from landfills.

Furthermore, there is a growing need to introduce standards that allow for the use of recycled content in packaging. This needs to be complemented with awareness programmes for society, prompting behavioural change that puts an end to littering, better understanding of the benefits and value of plastics as well as a move towards reusability that reduces waste generation.

Finally, replacing plastic applications with alternative materials which are proven to have a higher environmental footprint over their lifecycle is counterproductive. As we look to build a more sustainable future for our children, plastic will continue to play a key and indispensable role in our modern and sustainable way of life. It does not belong in the environment and should hardly be regarded as a waste. On the contrary, we should work together to fully tap into the potential that plastic has to offer and utilise it for the benefit of our society, economy and planet.

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