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From plastic producer to pollution fighter: Martyn Tickner on the dilemma facing the war on waste

Reduce marine pollution or carbon emissions? That is the tough choice at the heart of the plastic crisis, argues Martyn Tickner, a petrochemicals veteran who recently joined an industry-funded alliance to combat plastic waste.

Martyn Tickner has spent a 40-year career in the petrochemicals industry working for plastic producers, and wants to finish it in a job tackling a problem his industry is often blamed for creating.

The Briton, who has a degree in chemical engineering from Cambridge University, joined the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a Singapore-based non-profit backed by plastic producers and users such as Shell, Exxon Mobil, Dow, Sabic, BASF and Procter & Gamble at the start of the year. The alliance has committed to spend US$1.5 billion on waste collection and processing solutions in Southeast Asia over the next five years, and Ticker is in charge of project sourcing and development. 

“I wanted to end my career addressing a global problem [plastic pollution], and work for an organisation that can really make a difference,” he told Eco-Business. 

Tickner’s career switch comes after three years as chief executive of Bangkok-headquartered HMC Polymers, which produces almost one million tonnes of plastic a year. He’s also worked for long spells at plastics firm LyondellBasell and oil giant Shell, where he began his career in the 1980s.

A vociferous debater on the complexities of the plastic crisis, Tickner argues that the material has been unfairly vilified. The problem starts with consumer behaviour and the modern addiction to convenience, he argues. 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation argues that recycling can detract from the circular economy, as it takes away the incentive to reduce and reuse. I think that’s correct. But we’ve got to be pragmatic.

In this interview, Tickner talks the impact of the pandemic on plastic recycling, why incineration is not a bad solution, and the best way to solve the world’s most visible environmental problem.

Tackling the plastic crisis is complicated. What do you see as the biggest problems to solve?

Some solutions just don’t make economic sense. Recycled plastic costs a lot more than virgin plastic made directly from oil, so there’s little economic incentive to drive recycling rates up [only 9 per cent of the world’s plastic has been recycled]. 

There’s also a huge amount of social behavioural change needed to tackle the problem. Everybody has got used to a high level of convenience and luxury, and until recently people haven’t cared about the environmental consequences.

Industry has not put the brakes on and recognised that the necessary waste management infrastructure is not in place to deal with the rate of consumption in the Western world, let alone the developing world.

Brand owners have fueled the problem through their use of plastic to differentiate their products and gain market share while encouraging the notion of convenience and luxury among consumers. 

Meanwhile, governments have been powerless or unwilling to engage in the topic seriously enough.

Suddenly people have woken up to the problem, and now there’s a vehement hatred of plastics because they’re thrown in the ocean and last forever.

There is a reason why plastic is the most used and fastest growing material for packaging and products. It’s because it’s the best product there is. It’s cheap, light, flexible and durable.

Plastic is not the problem. It’s the symptom of the problem. The problem is our social behaviour, and our inability to manage the waste this has created.

So the bad reputation plastic has is unfair?

Most applications of plastic are good. The masks, ventilators, syringes, gloves, and medical gowns being used to address Covid-19 are made from plastic. It’s the consumable, single-use types that are a problem. We should encourage people to reuse and recycle. But if paper is used as disposable packaging, that has four times the carbon footprint of a plastic bag. Put them both in the ocean, and paper is better, as it degrades faster.

But what problem are you trying to fix? Everybody is talking about solutions. But they are not aligned on what the problem is we’re trying to solve. Do you want to tackle marine litter or carbon emissions? Cardboard, glass, metal and most bio-plastics also have a higher carbon footprint than plastic.

There are no solutions that fit all the right criteria of being environmentally and socially sound. People want luxury and convenience at low cost, but now they don’t want the environmental impact. But those things don’t all go together. Something’s got to give.

People say that plastic is not sustainable. But why? Plastics are made from oil, and we are not going to run out of oil in the next 100 years unlike, say, the precious metals we use in mobile phones, or water, which is becoming scarce. Even if we start to run out of oil, plastic is the most valuable use of oil there is. 

What is the focus of Alliance to End Plastic Waste?

The highest priority is collection. The quick solution is collection and landfill. But people don’t like landfill, because it’s not well controlled. We’re trying to do better than landfill, with mechanical recycling, energy recovery [incineration] and chemical recycling. 

Critics say that organisations like the Alliance to End Plastic Waste allow plastic producers to continue to use the same or more plastic that they are already, and avoid any reduction.

Our mission is not to defend plastic and convince everyone that plastics are good. It is to eliminate plastic waste. All our KPIs are based on how much plastic we’re taking out of the environment. We have brand owner members who are not wedded to using plastic, they just want to make good products that meet consumer demand.

Plastic is not the problem. It’s the symptom of the problem. The problem is our social behaviour.

I understand that there’s a risk that if we’re really successful with the recycling piece, we’ll be asked, where is the reuse and reduce piece going to come in? The Ellen MacArthur Foundation argues that recycling can detract from the circular economy, as it takes away the incentive to reduce and reuse. I think that’s correct. But we’ve got to be pragmatic. If we can reduce plastic use without making something else worse, like food waste, or use a more carbon-intensive alternative, like paper, good.

What do you see as the biggest impact of Covid-19 on the plastics industry?

The biggest issue right now is the price of virgin plastic, which is closely linked to the price of oil. The price of recycled plastic, which uses a substantial amount of energy to make, is higher than virgin plastic. So the incentive to recycle plastic has declined as a result of low oil prices

In the first quarter of 2009 after the oil price shock, the global recycling rate nose dived. China cut their imports of recycled plastic from 4 million tonnes to one million tonnes. And that worries me now. It was already really hard to make the economic case for recycling. Now it is much harder.

How is that likely to play out among brand owners who increasingly want to use recycled plastic in their products?

The brand owners are in their post-honeymoon period after making commitments [to use more recycled plastic] and they’re trying to live with them. Recycled plastic is in high demand and is commanding a higher price than virgin plastic. At the moment, the brand owners are still paying that price, but there’s not enough capacity to meet demand. 

It is difficult enough for brand owners as it is. Recycled material is never as good as virgin material. It degrades every time it is recycled. Some recycled plastic is a grey, murky colour. It smells bad. More of it has to be used, so it’s heavier, which adds to the carbon emissions. Food safety is also an issue, since it’s harder to tell exactly where the recycled material came from. 

What other impacts of Covid-19 do you see?

While the petrochemicals industry has been hard hit, single-use plastic has been a growth area. There has been push-back against reuseable containers [because of the fear of the risk of contamination], and in the United States, plastic bag bans are being reversed. Frankly, I think that’s bullshit. I don’t think there is a risk of passing on a disease through a reuseable bag. If there was, wouldn’t we stop passing credit cards around to pay for things too? We handle money all the time too. If there’s a real risk, we should be wearing gloves and washing our hands every 10 minutes.

Which countries do you think are particularly progressive at managing plastic waste and why?

Singapore, Japan, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Germany. These countries burn plastic for energy. As an industry, we’ve allowed burning for energy to be called incineration. But that’s such a negative word. Energy recovery is a better term.

Critics decry the emissions from burning plastic. But it generates electricity or heats water, and the carbon footprint is lower than burning oil, gas or coal. Energy recovery is only a bad option when you have 100 per cent renewable energy available, which we don’t. If I had the authority, I would insist on collecting and burning 100 per cent of plastic waste. That’s what Singapore does [Singapore incinerates 95 per cent of its plastic waste], and it works.

But burning trash produces some of the most toxic pollutants known to science, such as dioxins, and the emissions from an incinerator are on a par with a coal-fired power station. Aren’t you simply polluting the air instead of the water?

The reason China stopped importing scrap from overseas [Operation National Sword, introduced in 2017] was because of uncontrolled, open burning of waste. If it’s in uncontrolled facilities, I agree waste burning shouldn’t happen. But if the emissions are controlled and regulated properly, it’s not a bad solution. In the US, dioxin emissions from energy recovery plants are down to a few kilogrammes a year.

What do you think is the best solution to the plastic crisis?

The companies are responsible for the products they design and make after they’ve been used [this is a policy known as extended producer responsibility]. If brand owners and retailers have to pay for waste disposal, they are going to work really hard to optimise that cost. This is best way to drive plastic reduction, reuse and design for recycling.

Brand owners are in the best position to make the right choices, and need to be held accountable for their products. If they’re not, we really have a difficult task ahead of us. But the industry has driven solutions to environmental problems before, such as fixing the ozone layer. Marine pollution is a completely fixable problem There’s no excuse for not fixing it.

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