Solving for climate change: The plastics industry is up for the task
By Sarah Marshall, vice president of sustainability at Nova Chemicals Corp.Canadian Plastics Materials Sustainability
Facing and overcoming the challenge of climate change requires innovation, collaboration, and investment.
As we approach the second anniversary of the global pandemic, the plastics industry continues to face significant worldwide challenges. Global supply chain disruptions, workforce shortages, insufficient recycling infrastructure and waste management, to name a few. And while these are all daunting, the single greatest threat facing humanity is climate change. At Nova Chemicals, we recognize the significance of this challenge, and we are confident that our industry can be a part of the solution by achieving industrial decarbonization.
No doubt, the climb will be steep. There is much to be done to decarbonize the chemicals industry and work toward a future with zero plastic waste. The good news is that we are well on the journey already.
Recent announcements harnessing carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) solutions in my home province of Alberta and the U.S. Gulf Coast are supporting low emissions energy production and new blue hydrogen capacity. This technology is ready to scale now and is a critical pathway for industrial decarbonization, allowing the energy used for heat and steam production in our processes to transition to low or zero emissions combustion.
Many manufacturers have been reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensities for decades. Nova Chemicals has achieved a more than 30 per cent improvement in GHG emissions intensity since 1999 through investment including new energy efficiency improvements to our processes and conversion of our ethylene manufacturing facility in Corunna, Ontario to 100 per cent natural gas liquids (NGLs) while also growing in scale. This conversion also reduced emissions of air pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. We now look to the future to harness solutions like decarbonized power and CCUS while we continue to aggressively innovate new technologies that fundamentally reduce carbon emissions at source.
These are important steps and are part of the solution. The other critical step to help our industry fight climate change is to transition away from a linear model of “take, make, dispose” to a circular economy that considers plastics as a valuable resource, rather than consumer waste. Plastics are made to be remade. Together with the rest of the North American plastics industry, we take an active position in securing a future in which 100 percent of plastic packaging will be recyclable and recoverable by 2030, and 100 percent reused, recycled, and recovered by 2040.
There is progress here too. Nova announced a third partnership with a North American recycler to supply LLDPE post-consumer resin (PCR) for use in packaging such as heavy-duty sacks, e-commerce cushioning and mailers, stretch wrap, and collation shrink. Reprocessing plastics into PCR requires significantly less energy than virgin plastic production, and therefore lower carbon emissions. Strong demand for PCR is being driven by brand owner and retailer packaging companies’ sustainability goals, but as we know, virgin and recycled plastics deliver the most energy efficient packaging and help reduce food waste – another key contributor to climate change.
As an industry, we must collaborate to maximize our collective success. For example, NOVA Chemicals joined other chemical industry leaders including Dow and LyondellBasell, to start the Closed Loop Circular Plastics Fund in 2021 to finance projects and companies that are working to increase the amount of recycled polyethylene and polypropylene available to meet growing demand. Sealed Air and SK Global Chemical have also joined as investors to bring the fund to US$35 million. I am also encouraged by the increasing number of signatories to the Canada Plastics Pact.
Facing and overcoming the challenge of climate change requires innovation, collaboration, and investment. In my opinion, there is hope for timely solutions. While it will take all of us, the plastics industry is up for the task.
Sarah Marshall is the vice president of sustainability at Nova Chemical Corp. She is based out of Calgary, Alta.