2021 Plastics’ Frontiers – A 10 Part Webinar Series

Written by Dr Richard Thwaites, FRACI CChem
Published on 1 October 2021

A collaboration between The Society of Chemical Industry (SCI), The Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI), and The Society of Plastics Engineers, Australia and New Zealand Chapter (SPE-ANZ)


Held on selected Tuesdays from February to August 2021

I am sure we all recollect the memorable scene in the 1967 film “The Graduate” in which Benjamin Braddock, the recent college graduate played by Dustin Hoffman, is advised by a well-meaning middle-aged neighbour about his future career:  he is told his career should focus on: “In One Word:  PLASTICS”.

The ten webinars in the “Plastics Frontiers” series have had their memorable moments, too.  They have been outstandingly successful, informative and thought provoking, and have featured speakers from across Australia and around the world talking about various aspects of plastics.

Plastics have been a real benefit to humanity:  problems with plastics arise when they are not disposed of properly after use.   Many of the speakers in our webinars focused on how to recover, recycle and re-use plastic materials to improve the overall future sustainability of the industry.

We heard about innovative research into various aspects of polymer and plastic use, from medical applications to the production of children’s toys from discarded HDPE milk cartons and the manufacture of garden furniture, bollards and decking from mixed plastic waste.  We heard about how human behavior needs to be modified to stop people discarding used plastic products and materials around the countryside.  We heard about how various groups are trying to make the plastics industry more sustainable including how wastage can be reduced, and discarded product recycled.  We heard about novel plastics, like PLA and other biopolymers, and how plastic products can be made compostable and the advantages and shortcomings of this type of approach.

Several speakers provided a range of statistics on plastic production, consumption and re-use.  A big shift in what to do with used plastics occurred when China shut the door to container loads of plastic waste exports from Australia (and elsewhere) in 2018.  Now waste is either recovered and recycled locally, is stockpiled until technology and economics make re-use and recovery technically and economically more viable, or is sent to landfill.  We understand that world production of plastics is around 400 million tonnes.  In the 2018/2019 Financial year, according to the “Australian Plastics Recycling Survey”, approximately 3.5 million tonnes of plastics were consumed in Australia (around 60% of which was imported) but only 394,000 tonnes or 11.5% was recovered for re-use.  The 2021 National Plastics Plan envisages phasing out problematic and unnecessary plastics, eliminating as far as possible single-use plastic bags, shifting to more readily recyclable plastic products like PET, HDPE, LDPE and PP and by 2025 having 100% of packaging being re-usable, recyclable or compostable.

Many of the speakers in the webinars addressed these vital issues.  It was pointed out that often governments had to provide economic incentives to encourage recovery and recycling and prevent irresponsible disposal and indiscriminate littering.  Whilst this may appear to distort the economics of the industry in the short term, it reflects the wishes of the majority of the general public to stop, for example, plastic bags polluting beaches and the oceans.  Several pundits have suggested that before too long, the weight of plastics in oceans will exceed the weight of fish, although studies have pointed out that resins eroded from anti-fouling paints on ships’ hulls account for a significant proportion of ocean polymer pollution. 

It was interesting that a speaker from Coca Cola noted that they were now very close to making 100% of their bottles from recycled PET, unlike the situation in 2000 when the Coca Cola plant at Prestons in NSW won the SCI “Plant of the Year” award.  At that point of time they were putting an upper limit on the amount of recycled PET in new bottles.

Whilst disposal to landfill locks up carbon which otherwise could escape into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, it does represent a waste of a natural (fossil fuel) resource.  One speaker spoke of his research into the conversion of used plastic materials destined for the rubbish dump into fuel oil.  Whilst not eliminating the greenhouse gas problem, this approach would reduce it.

Several speakers talked about the establishment of new industries to convert used plastic material into the component resins for re-use.  This example of the circular economy shows promise, provided that the resources used to convert the waste plastic back into polymer are less than the resources consumed to make polymer from virgin monomer.  This continues to be a challenge.

In addition to speakers from academia and industry, including producers and users of plastics, the webinars included speakers from the government (the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment) and organisations like the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO), and Nextek.

At the end of the series, it was clear that there is still a great future for anyone who wants a career in plastics.  Maybe the emphasis will be different from years gone by, but there is still confidence that the industry will be viable, sustainable and innovative for decades to come.  And hopefully when plastic pipe extrusion machinery goes wrong as it did in the 1958 Jacques Tati film, “Mon Oncle”, the hapless M. Hulot (Tati) won’t have to dash around the factory in a panic trying to capture and hide the metres and metres of misshapen pipe snaking around the machinery everywhere:  instead it will all be able to be calmly collected and re-processed.

The organizing committee comprising Dr Yvonne Mah (Convenor and Chair) from BASF (representing the RACI), Dr Gary Bowman from Reckitt Benckiser and the RACI, Dr Richard Thwaites RACI and SCI,  Mrs Jenny Sharwood OAM (RACI), Mr Han Michel, President of the SPE-ANZ and Dr Eustathios (Steve) Petinakis of the PACT Group and the SPE-ANZ, was heartily thanked by participants who stayed the distance over all 10 episodes.  And special thanks were extended to the sponsors of the webinars, BASF, Qenos, Reckitt Benckiser, and Foundry IP.

Edited recordings of presentations made at the webinars should be available on the RACI website (www.raci.org.au) from September or October onwards.  They will make excellent viewing!