Plastics and polymers and resins, oh my!

Plastic waste floating in a canal in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

This article is drawn from the new Circular Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Fridays.

Not long ago, I would have read this headline and kept scrolling, rapidly and without hesitation: "Ambitious alliance mobilizes value chain for bio-based polymers." Yikes. It’s a bit of a mouthful, and if you’re new to the conversation on circular plastics, or plastics overall, I imagine your eyes might have glazed over, as mine did.

But when we break down silos to work across a value chain such as plastics, there’s an opportunity to be exposed to entirely new industries and areas of expertise. Sometimes, it involves checking your ego and asking seemingly simple (a.k.a. "dumb") questions. After all, if we can’t ask such questions, how can we learn to unravel and rethink a complex value chain?

There’s no time like the present to understand what we’re really talking about when it comes to polymers, bio-based materials and plastics. So this week, I’ll break down a few key terms to help you navigate the news and confidently tackle plastic-related jargon. It’s a process that I, a relative newbie, went through to better understand and appreciate the growing headlines about plastic and circularity. I’m hoping it will be helpful to some of you, too.

Polymers: To understand plastic, you need to start with its basic ingredient, polymers — basically, chains of molecules. Polymers are substances made of many repeating subunits (called monomers) bonded together, and they can be both natural or synthetic. When chemists combine (or polymerize) various monomers in different arrangements, voilà, you get plastic.

Plastic: This refers to a group of materials, made up of polymers, that can be shaped when soft and then hardened, as needed, to keep their shape. In the context of circular economy, plastic matters because more than 90 percent is made from virgin petroleum-based feedstocks, which are finite and nonrenewable. This represents about 6 percent of global oil consumption, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy (PDF). To give you a sense of scale, this is roughly the same amount of oil used by the global aviation industry.

Resin: This is the raw material used to manufacture plastics. While naturally occurring resins such as amber can be found in nature, synthetic resins have been around for just little over 100 years, and we interact with them daily. For example, most plastic water bottles are made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate), a common human-made polymer resin.

Bio-based materials: The goal of a circular plastics supply chain is to decouple plastic production from oil extraction, continually cycling those molecules without waste or need for further extraction. But not all plastic needs to be derived from oil. Sourcing plastic from the biomass in plants offers a potential solution by replacing non-renewable feedstocks with renewable bio-based materials.

We’ve seen limited scaling of bio-material markets so far, but Project Effective, an ambitious collaboration among key stakeholders in eight countries in the nylon value chain, is working to develop bio-based plastics that can be recycled multiple times.

This brings us back to the article I referenced above, which I hope you now feel more confident sinking your teeth into. The story offers a fantastic example of what value-chain engagement actually looks like, with participants ranging from plastic producers such as Aquafil, which makes nylon yards for carpets and textiles, to brands such as H&M, the Swedish multinational clothing retailer.

I hope the above admittedly simplistic review can encourage you to keep asking seemingly simple questions. Odds are, someone else has the same one. And sometimes, they’re not so simple.

Questions or thoughts? Don’t hesitate to send me a note at [email protected]. I invite you to suggest a story or topic we should cover or an interesting story you’ve come across in your online travels.