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Marcelo Lu is president of BASF Canada

I’ve been thinking a lot about waste lately. With the federal government’s move to ban single-use plastics as soon as 2021, we’re seeing progress in terms of action on plastic waste – but will this get at the root of the issue? How can we ensure the solution is sustainable?

With the health of our environment at stake, we need to address this issue holistically. Plastics bring efficiencies to industry and our daily lives and contribute to more sustainable solutions. Innovation in plastics has helped us to develop more lightweight vehicles that use less fuel and produce fewer emissions, for example. It has also resulted in more energy-efficient homes through better insulation.

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But globally, we’ve got a huge problem, and it’s not just about how to manage plastic waste. Instead we need to ask how can we better manage the life cycle of plastics. About 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the 1950s and just 23 per cent of that has been recovered or recycled. Between now and 2050, we’ll add another 12 billion tonnes. A recent article in The Globe and Mail cited that Canada recycles only 9 per cent of its plastic waste, and that may even be an overestimation. These aren’t just numbers on a page. They have a direct impact on the health of our environment, and our planet.

It’s not something we can afford to ignore. The Philippines and Malaysia are demanding Canada take back the garbage we’ve shipped to those countries. Polling shows that Canadians are worried and want government to improve how we handle waste. While the planned single-use plastics ban represents progress, we need more than a plastic-waste management strategy. We need to start thinking differently about plastics.

The problem is that we tend not to think in terms of a circular economy, and so we haven’t put a system in place that supports it. We need to think about reuse at the onset of product design. Let’s look beyond end-of-life management and shift the focus toward how waste can be reused. Companies can and should be thinking about how their products deliver back to the value chain and contribute to that circular economy.

So, what’s preventing us from addressing this problem in a meaningful way? I would argue that one of the biggest barriers to shifting this mindset rests in the hands of the government.

Canada’s regulatory framework for waste is very strict. There are specific rules classifying “waste” and how that material can – or cannot – be used in chemical production. Canada’s regulations must keep up with the pace of innovation in a way that supports business and that would, in turn, help the environment. But to be able to achieve this change, we need the government to implement smart regulations that foster growth, move quickly alongside the pace of innovation and safeguard our environment.

The reality is that companies can – and do – think big. Businesses in Canada are constantly coming up with new technologies and interesting ways to reuse materials, including plastics. BASF recently announced its chemical-recycling project, an innovative process to reuse plastic waste that is currently not recycled, such as mixed or uncleaned plastics. Using thermochemical processes, these plastics can be used to produce fuels or oils. The result is recycled raw materials that can be used in production, thereby partly replacing fossil resources.

It’s challenging for innovation like this to find a home on the mainstream business stage. Innovative technologies exist right now to facilitate the collection, recycling and recovery of plastics. Canada can be a leader in the recycling and recovery of plastics by investing in chemical recycling technologies and other waste innovations.

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All of us would benefit from stronger partnerships to encourage the disruption and creative problem-solving that is needed to solve the big issues facing our country today.

The chemical industry also needs to do a better job of communicating the incredible things its capable of, and the benefits it brings to our society. Chemistry is in 95 per cent of every industry that exists today – from the coating on an airplane to make it more streamlined, to the phone in your pocket that can respond to the touch of a finger. Innovation requires chemistry. Why not bring these incredible innovations to light, and acknowledge how they can change our lives for the better?

We’re out of sync, and it’s showing. The time for the circular economy is here. How fast we get there depends on complex parts of the value chain working together on solutions, from regulatory incentives to new business models and investments.

Most of all, it takes the willingness of all of us to open our minds to new ways of thinking, and not wait for direction. Instead, let’s use our combined capabilities to act and set an example for other industries to follow.

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