Sustainable Business Decisions

Article by Paul Hodges

Paul Hodges discusses the challenges that companies should consider on the path to a sustainable future

This year sees the petrochemicals and plastics industry heading into a major transformation. As a result, many parts of it will be unrecognisable by 2030. And chemical engineers will be key to making this transformation happen. It’s an exciting, if challenging prospect.

The background is the coming together of two major changes at either end of our current value chain:

  • Upstream, battery electric vehicles raced to an 11% market share in the UK last year, up 76% on 2020. By 2030, sales of new gasoline/diesel cars will be banned. Refinery closures are therefore inevitable. In turn, naphtha feedstock availability for the petrochemical and plastics industry will be sharply reduced.
  • Downstream, retailers and brand owners are committing to mandatory targets of at least 30% recycled content for plastics packaging by 2030, in line with consumer and legislative pressure. Trade body PlasticsEurope has also endorsed this move, making it likely that most single-use plastic will soon have to be recycled.

Essentially, therefore, the industry that we know and love seems likely to be moving into an endgame as it is squeezed from both ends of the value chain.

This squeeze highlights why the concept of transformation is critical. The challenge today is to repeat the bold moves made by the industry’s visionary founders in the 1950s-1960s, when they transformed it from using coal-based feedstock to oil and gas. That bold move set the scene for decades of growth in revenue and profits. In 2022, we have to focus on repeating this success by moving rapidly to use recycled feedstock.

This is where the role of chemical engineers will be critical. We know the main technologies that are likely to be needed to make chemical recycling a reality – processes such as pyrolysis, solvolysis, hydrolysis, depolymerisation and gasification. But we don’t have much experience in operating them at the smaller scale that will be required to recycle waste plastic effectively on a more local, city-based scale. Consumers and regulators, after all, aren’t likely to take kindly to seeing their waste transported across the country, especially when they add in their CO2 emissions.

Article by Paul Hodges

Chairman of New Normal Consulting ( and a Global Expert with the World Economic Forum

Previously he was an Executive Director of a US$1bn ICI chemicals business.

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