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Jean Viallefont

Jean
Viallefont

Vice President, Total Polymers Europe

Circular economy expert
Jean Viallefont

The Future of Plastic

 

What is global plastic consumption today and how is this set to change in the years to come?

 

Jean Viallefont: The global consumption of plastic amounts to 350 million tons a year. We are expecting an increase between 4 and 4.5% per year in the coming years, at least until 2025. This growth is distributed in very unequal proportions. In advancing economies, it is higher than the GDP, whereas it is more or less linked to population growth in advanced economies. Ten years back, plastic consumption in advanced economies was half of global consumption; today it is only a third.

 

How can we explain that today such a small proportion of post-consumer plastic gets collected for recycling (14% of plastic packaging in 2013 according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation)?

JV: This is, in part, a technical issue. To begin with, there is a great variety of plastic. When we recycle colored plastic, we get a mixture in a greyish color which is unsuitable for many uses. This does not correspond to users’ demands for color. Furthermore, most plastics on the market today must be food-safe, for packaging for example, and they lose this quality after recycling. These are two obstacles which show how we have relatively limited choices in terms of how we can recycle. This goes part of the way to explaining why there is such a low recycling rate today.

 

Which solutions have you developed in order to integrate the circular economy into Total’s expertise in plastic production?

JV: We have a concept called “Circular Compounds” which involves mixing recycled plastics with new, very high-performance plastics we call “boosters”. In this way, we get a product which performs as well as virgin plastic and meets our clients’ demands. This product has already been commercialized and we sell the compounds at the price of virgin plastic.

 

In the future, what proportion of post-consumer plastic could come from recycled plastic, in particular through your solution?

JV: Prediction is a tricky business! What we can say, however, is that the European Union is working on a number of standards and regulations which aim to ensure that 50-60% of all packaging put on the market gets recycled. This gives you an idea of the goals that legislators and civil society have decided to establish in this domain.

 

Can we imagine a day when a type of plastic could be infinitely recyclable?

JV: Every time we recycle, the recycled product loses in quality compared to the original. This is mainly because the physical transformations involved cause it to lose some of its qualities. I find it impossible to imagine a plastic that could be recycled forever, just as we can hardly imagine a plastic capable of meeting all our needs.

At present, there is a tremendous variety of plastics. There are major plastics such as polyethylene (PE) polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), each with different properties that meet different needs. I don’t envision one single type of plastic that could replace all the others without losing the very features that make them popular. Because they are lightweight and make cars and packaging lighter, plastics have a clear positive impact on CO2 emissions. A European study has shown that if we replaced plastic with other materials we would see an increase of around 60% of the CO2 emitted.

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