An interview with Sylvia Hofinger, Director General of the Association of the Austrian Chemical Industry (FCIO), on plastics, the circular economy and climate protection. She advocates debate founded on facts and solution-oriented cooperation throughout the value chain.
CO2 is considered the currency of the future, with climate neutrality being the declared goal. What action is the chemical industry taking to reduce its carbon footprint?
What a lot of people don’t know is that the chemical industry helps reduce greenhouse gases in a great many areas. The majority of Green Deal solutions require materials and products from the chemical industry – solar collectors, batteries for e-mobility, wind turbines, building insulation and high-performance electronics. Food packaging which results in a longer shelf life and therefore less food waste packaging likewise plays a part in reducing the carbon footprint. The chemical industry is therefore the key industry when it comes to decarbonisation.
Austria’s chemical industry has also been on the right track for some time now in terms of energy consumption in the area of production. Process-related greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by more than 52 per cent since 1990. This places us right at the top in an international comparison. Austria emits a mere 37 tonnes of carbon per terajoule of energy consumption during the production of chemical products. The EU average is 61 tonnes of carbon. In the USA, it is 71 tonnes and in China it is no less than 104 tonnes.
What part can plastics recycling play in protecting the climate?
Developing a functioning circular economy is an important step in the direction of climate neutrality. We have succeeded in eliminating up to 2.4 million tonnes of carbon emissions a year in Austria by expediting plastics recycling and have significantly reduced the amount of energy needed for production at the same time. In addition, research projects are currently being run throughout Europe, for example in the area of chemical recycling, in which plastic waste which could not previously be recycled is returned to its original state and thus made available for new production.
How can higher recycling quotas be achieved? What do you consider to be the key levers here?
As an industry, we want to see recyclates made using waste plastic go into the manufacture of new products. And we want this to happen more than in the past. Currently, a mere 25 per cent of the plastic collected is recycled, but we have considerably greater capacity available in production. One of the reasons for this is not least the fact that we receive very little single-stream plastic for recycling. We need to establish an intelligent and ecological value chain covering everything from usage and collection to recycling. This calls for objective and target-oriented cooperation between industry, the retail sector, the waste management industry as well as regions and municipalities in order to further optimise the topic of recycling. A standardised nationwide collection system for all plastic waste, for example, would be a progressive step which would increase recycling quotas. At the European level, EU-wide recognition of plastics recycling as a climate protection measure is key.
In the debate surrounding plastics, communication which is founded on facts is often called for. How do you see a way out of the emotionally charged debate, with a shift towards the objective assessment of materials and their environmental impacts?
In the public arena, plastic has unfortunately been primarily associated with littering and plastic islands in the ocean. Plastics indisputably have no business being in the environment. But if used and disposed of responsibly, it is plastics that make modern life possible in the first place in many areas of business and day-to-day life. Communicating this fact is the first step in the direction of balanced debate.
A second important point is making the debate more objective on the basis of scientific data. If we consider the environmental footprints of various packaging types, we can see that plastics are superior to other materials in many areas. For example, reusable plastic bottles have the smallest environmental footprint, as confirmed by environmental NGOs. More facts also need to be introduced into the debate regarding the analysis of the sources of plastic waste. More than 90 per cent of the plastic waste in the oceans comes from Asia and Africa, and approximately 50 per cent of this waste is fishing nets, not household waste. This is communicated all too rarely even though it is material to the right action being taken.
Which brings us on to the next step: last, but not least, we must show people what form the solutions to these problems can take, be it promoting plastics cycles in Austria and Europe or assisting developing countries with establishing functioning waste management. The ongoing technological developments in the direction of chemical recycling need to be communicated better too.
Will there be a future which is free of plastic, as many would like, or is it indispensable as a material?
I don't want to imagine a future which is free of plastic – it would be a nightmare. Over the past 50 years, plastic has proved itself to be the best material alternative in many areas of life. Prosperity, convenience and good health as we know them would not be possible without it. Take medicine, for example. Together with other achievements and developments, plastics have played a part in increasing life expectancy. On the one hand, because infections could be reduced, and on the other, because plastics made certain examination and treatment methods possible in the first place. There are now very few devices which do not at least have a plastic outer shell. Likewise, single-use products such as syringes, infusion bottles, disposable gloves and protective clothing would be inconceivable without plastics. Information and communication technologies would be out of the question without plastics, as would climate protection.
These days, plastics are high-tech materials which are developed to solve specific challenges. Careful use of these products for the duration of their life cycle and their subsequent recycling are key to our being able to maintain and improve our standard of living while also minimising the environmental impact.
About the FCIO
The Association of the Austrian Chemical Industry (FCIO) is the statutory representative body of the chemical industry in Austria. The association currently represents some 240 companies within the chemical industry comprising not only the plastic and pharma industries, but also the production of organic and inorganic chemicals, synthetic fibres and lacquers. In 2019, more than 47,000 employees in the chemical industry produced goods worth more than 16 billion euros. The FCIO champions Austria as an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable and attractive chemical location with a research- and technology-friendly environment in which the chemical industry can use its innovative capacity to develop and supply solutions to central societal challenges.
Sylvia Hofinger has been Director General of the FCIO since June 2011. Prior to this, she worked within Austria’s Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs from 2003 to 2006 as Head of the Sectoral Business Policy department. In this capacity, Hofinger was responsible among other things for chemical policy. She subsequently oversaw the topics of business, environmental and energy policy as a cabinet employee.
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