South Africans have had first-hand experience of deadly plastic pollution with the recent “nurdle” incident where hundreds of thousands of lentil-sized plastic pellets washed up on our beaches.

These pellets are deadly poison to fish and marine mammals, who mistake them for food and eat them.

An IHS Markit study finds that global demand for polyethylene, the world’s most used plastic, has nearly doubled since 1999.

However, new analysis says this growth in demand is being met with significant new market pressures that threaten the future of plastics demand growth, such as a rise in consumer expectations around sustainability, along with tightening environmental regulations in key growth markets such as China.

According to IHS Markit, global demand for PE was 50-million metric tons (MMT) in 1999 and demand is expected to exceed 100 MMT in 2018.

“As more consumers in developing countries such as China and India increase their spending power and join the global economy, we are witnessing truly phenomenal growth in demand for the key plastics that are critical to so many of the products and life essentials we rely on every day, such as cell phones, computers, food and beverage packaging, clothes, cars and even life-saving medical devices,” says Nick Vafiadis, vice-president of plastics for IHS Markit.

“That consumption growth, though, comes with greater expectations and responsibility, both for plastics producers and consumers. We at IHS Markit are focused on how producers and consumers can work together to address the issues of sustainability and management of plastics recycling, reuse, or waste reduction. This issue is top of mind for plastics industry leaders.”

Addressing sustainability while managing increasing demand and environmental regulations will be key topics of discussion at the PEPP 2018: Polyethylene and Polypropylene Chain Global Technology and Business Forum to be held from 26 to 28 June in Dusseldorf, Germany.

“In my conversations with the leaders of plastics resins producers and manufacturers, it is clear the plastics industry understands the need to be very proactive in embracing sustainability across the entire supply chain,” Vafiadis says.

“This includes leading stakeholder discussions and finding ways to partner with retailers, consumers, recyclers, and even with designers, to plan for second-life uses for products after they are initially consumed.”

By 2022, global polyethylene demand is expected to reach 120 MMT annually, while global demand for polypropylene is expected to be just under 90 MMT. Much of that growth is being driven by China, which accounts for about 60% of new global plastics demand growth.

China’s ban on importing plastics waste for recycling plus the global growth of online shopping trends are helping increase demand for virgin plastics material, IHS Markit said.

“As announcements of additional polyolefins capacity and images of plastic pollution share the headlines globally, the need for a differentiated and sustainable plastics industry is emerging,” Vafiadis says. “The transition from a linear (take-make-dispose) economy to a circular economy (recover-innovate-reuse) represents a shift to ensure industry sustainability and value creation.”

Andrea Landuzzi, global marketing director, technology solutions-polymer additives for Solvay, will discuss examples of how purpose-driven product development that leverages high-performance stabilisers can enable the polyolefins industry to become more economically and ecologically sustainable.

The reduction of volatile organic compounds (VOC) for automotive interior compounds has become a major topic with increasingly stringent norms. In response to this trend, resin producers introduced low-VOC grades, but the profitability of these grades has not met expectations. Catherine Malchaire, technical sales manager Europe, business unit polymer stabilizers Songwon International AG, will look at this dichotomy between consumer demands and market realities.

“The issue of sustainability is perhaps the most critical influencer for the plastics industry as a whole, both today and in the future,” Vafiadis says. “Many communities across the globe are exploring bans on plastic bags, but marine waste is an issue that the plastics industry must take a leadership role in addressing because the industry has learned it needs a cooperative, multi-organisational approach that brings all the stakeholders together to solve such a very complex problem.”