Ten new technologies to electrify the future: Circular plastic, a resources-focus approach
Plastic is not good for the environment: everyone knows it and everyone makes efforts to avoid it, or at least to sort it better. However, it is still essential in many sectors. Indeed, it remains very important in the design of cables because of its exceptional properties: mechanical, dielectrical, processability, durability...
The problem lies in the poorly managed and uncontrolled plastic waste streams that endanger ecosystems around the world:
- Over 460 million tons of plastics were produced in 2019,
- Up to 50% of plastic waste was sent to landfill,
- Despite current initiatives and efforts, the amount of plastics in the oceans has been estimated to be around 75-199 million tons. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, by 2050 and without action, there will be as much plastic as fish in the sea (1kg for 1kg).
To face the growing volume of plastic produced, used and dumped, industries have to evolve to a fully circular model in which end-of-life plastic products are not discarded but transformed to create value. Innovation, regulation and international collaboration are needed to enable this transition.
In addition to resource management and pollution issues, plastic materials have an impact on greenhouse gases. A kg of polyethylene produced in Europe for plastic manufacturing has a carbon footprint of roughly 1.8 kg of CO2 equivalent.
Plastic material: versatile and unavoidable
Industrial-scale plastics production began in earnest in the 1940s and rapidly increased in the 1950s. More than 8 billion tons of plastics have been produced worldwide since 1950, making it a widely used manufactured material (Geyer et al., 2017).
Plastics offer various benefits such as a high strength-to-weight ratio, and the ability to tailor their physical properties to be hard or soft as needed. This versatility and durability, combined with the low cost of plastic production, is the major reason why plastics are currently used in almost every sector.
A necessary transition to circular plastic
Today, almost all plastic is derived from materials made from fossil energy (primarily oil and gas). This causes several problems:
- If dependence on plastics persists, it will represent 20% of annual global oil consumption by 2050,
- Greenhouse gas emissions for plastics will reach 1.34 gigatons per year by 2030 if it remains in its current form,
- The ability of the global community to keep temperature rise below +1.5°C or even +2°C by 2100 will be threatened.
According to OECD, “Plastic pollution is growing relentlessly as waste management and recycling fall short”. Indeed, it is estimated that only 9% of plastic waste is recycled, and 22% is mismanaged. Due to the durability and strength of the material, plastic waste remains in the environment and takes decades or even centuries to decompose naturally. It involves the loss of biodiversity and alteration of ecosystems (MacLeod et al., 2021).
Hopefully, a transition of plastic materials is possible:
- Recycling: although recycling is currently the simplest and most widely used solution to transform plastic waste into new products, efforts can be made in terms of sorting and separation. Among all the recycling routes, we differentiate: the simple reuse (direct wastes reuse within the manufacturing processes for example), the mechanical recycling (crushing/powderization after a sorting/separation for example) and the chemical one (with different routes: dissolution, depolymerization or conversion). These technologies make possible to approach the recycling of the wide family of plastics with different levels of complexity and quality.
- Bioplastics: Plastics that are biosourced and/or biodegradable can enhance circularity and minimize carbon dioxide emissions caused by the use of conventional fossil raw materials. These bio-materials could be either classical plastics made from bio feedstocks (polyethylene from sugar cane for example) or bio-materials directly found in nature (starch, bio-based plasticizers…).
- Eco-design: The principle of eco-design is about taking into account the entire life cycle of the product, from the materials used to its recovery and recycling and to take this into account at early stages, i.e. during the material conception. Meaning for example the use of recycled or biobased materials, increase the product lifetimes, select the materials to facilitate the recycling, decrease the weight of plastics used…
Nexans and circular plastics
The major challenge of industrial activity is to drastically limit the impact on the environment. There are three main issues that are interconnected:
- the impact on greenhouse gases and the climate,
- the impact on resources, particularly copper and aluminum as well as plastic materials,
- the impact on biodiversity, which requires the substitution of certain additives (e.g. REACH substances) and the control of the entire life cycle in order to limit and eliminate pollution.
Environmental challenges are at the center of Nexans cable solutions development. We commit to reduce the environmental footprint of our cables thanks to the selection of materials. More than ever, Nexans aims to invent innovative materials that combine eco-design, performance, durability and recyclability.
Extend the use of recycled materials
The incorporation of recycled materials in new products is a challenge for all industries. Nexans has launched a company-wide initiative to use up to 30-60 % recycled plastics in different cable families across the electrification chain.
Recover our wastes
Nexans works to improve the recycling of end-of-life cables and offers to collect customers’ wastes through Nexans Recycling Services. Moreover, Nexans has an objective to recycle 100% of its production wastes by 2030, with a circular economy dynamic. Plastic wastes sorting and valorization are now at the center of several R&D projects to answer all the blocking points (e.g. legacy additives, plastic mix separation, crosslinked polymers recycling…).
Eco-design of our cables
The current valorization efforts of existing end-of-life cables highlight substantive problems linked to their complex designs or to their various components. New products are now created with a strong will of eco-design including:
- Limit and replace the use of hazardous substances,
- Development of plastic materials that are more easily recycled,
- Simplification of cable designs,
- Improvement of the cable lifetimes.
Innovation will be key to the transition from a linear to a circular model for plastics materials. It requires the development of specific technologies, but will also have to include supply chain and business model components that will be only possible through ecosystems.
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