How do you solve a problem like plastic?

For 150 years ICIS has charted the price of the most versatile material on earth

Garbage patch with seagulls above

Exploding billiard balls

The first commercial plastic was invented to protect elephants. A craze for billiards was sweeping the world from English stately homes to American saloons increasing demand for ivory billiard balls. In 1863, a New York billiards supplier – fearing for elephant populations – offered a “handsome fortune” to anyone who could invent a new material.

American businessman John Wesley Hyatt created celluloid building on the work of British chemist Alexander Parkes. Made from nitrocellulose – known variously as pyroxylin, flash paper and gun cotton – it was, perhaps unsurprisingly, combustible. Two billiard balls striking each other produced a “mild explosion” like a gunshot, Hyatt said, adding: “We had a letter from a billiard saloon proprietor in Colorado mentioning this fact and saying that he did not care so much about it but that instantly every man in the room pulled his gun.”

Celluloid, which could be moulded and hardened, was waterproof, did not rot and could be made to resemble ivory, coral, lapis lazuli, amber, marble and carnelian. It was most famously used to make tortoiseshell combs and cinema film – which ironically nearly killed the comb industry when movie stars popularized short bobs.

The evolution of plastic

Celluloid started a boom in synthetic plastics and, two years after it was invented, the US magazine Oil, Paint and Drug Reporter – which later was acquired by ICIS (Independent Commodity Intelligence Services) – formed to report on this emerging industry. Early editions chronicled the transition from natural plastics to synthetic plastics, noting that New Yorkers were "not deceived" when corset-makers replaced whalebone with celluloid.

Innovation accelerated in the 20th century: in the 1930s, plastic was in coffee pots, vacuum cleaners and telephones; in the 1940s, in bazookas, military raincoats and parachutes; in the 1950s, in food wrap, tupperware and bath tubs; and, in the 1960s, scientists pioneered silicone breast implants, and DuPont invented Kevlar.

The price of plastic

Plastic was first spotted in the ocean in the 1960s. People started to realise its greatest advantage – its durability – was also its greatest disadvantage: it can take thousands of years to degrade creating a vast build-up of waste. Enthusiasm waned by the late 60s, however, this did ot stop it proliferating and, by 1976, it was the most used material on earth. ICIS has been reporting from the frontline of the plastics revolution for 150 years. Few companies know more about the price we pay – monetarily and environmentally – for the world’s most versatile material.

Data and analytics

Editors also study datasets, which can range from GDP figures to the prices of related commodities. “Data is at the core of what we do,” says Vitorino. “We look for stories in the numbers.” The aim is to bring transparency to the market and end the need for lengthy negotiations between buyers and sellers.

The company has a track record of adapting: it made an early transition from print to digital; from advertising to subscriptions; and from weekly updates to rolling news. We were ahead of the curve,” says Nigel Davis, who has been Insight Editor at ICIS for 30 years. “We made some smart moves. We got into a subscription mindset and a digital mindset early. We also globalised and delivered 24-hour news.” Content used to be delivered via a PDF. Now subscribers access news, price data, charts, in-depth analysis and information about supply and demand on the company’s digital platform.

A clear purpose

Purpose – being a force for good in the world – is the company’s biggest priority. It is under no illusions about the environmental price of plastics: plastic damages habitats, harms wildlife and threatens human health. People have produced an estimated 9.2 billion tons of plastic since it was invented. Each year a further 400 million tons are produced – 40 per cent of it for single-use items. More than eight million tons enter the world's seas each year. Ironically, a material invented to preserve animals now endangers them. 

Microplastics – the minuscule fragments produced when plastic degrades – are another problem: Zooplankton eat microplastics; fish eat zooplankton; and we eat fish. Microplastics have been found in other foods from salt to honey. They are also found in the air. Nearly all adults and eight out of ten babies have traces of phthalates – a plastic additive – in their bodies. Around 93 per cent of people have BPA – another plastic additive – in their urine. The health impacts are not known.

The global plastic market is worth $1.2 trillion. The pandemic has driven demand for single-use plastics globally and the shale rush in the US has rejuvenated the American plastics industry. “Demand for polyethylene and polypropylene also increased globally, and we have seen record prices in the past few months following unusual events from the hurricane issues in the US and a shortage of containers and freights affecting exports from Asia to Europe” says Naylor.

A complex problem

There are no easy answers. Recycling is beset with difficulties: there are seven categories of plastic of which only four are routinely recycled. Much of household recycling is multi-stream which means all categories of plastic end up in the same bag – along with glass, paper and cardboard. Sorting is often costly and complex. Countries used to send their waste predominantly to China where cheap labour made sorting profitable but that ended in 2018 when contamination levels became unmanageable and a country-wide ban on waste imports was imposed. Now plastic waste that has low tensile strength or is deemed too contaminated ends up in landfills or incinerators even if the consumer recycles it.

Plastic that does get recycled is diced, melted and remade. This is known as a primary method of mechanical recycling. The resulting recycled material can be more costly than virgin plastic because demand often exceeds supply. 

Mechanical recycling is circular up to a point," says Louise Boddy, Head of Commercial Strategy, Sustainability. "Eventually a plastic molecule can't be made into plastic again because the bonds between the molecules degrade. There are also quality issues. It can be difficult to get recycled plastic of the same colour as virgin plastic because of the mixed nature of the waste that goes into it. And the waste collection infrastructure is a bottle-neck that needs government support."

Chemical recycling is a promising alternative. Plastic is broken down to its molecular building blocks, and then converted to a variety of new materials from the waste, including virgin-quality plastic. There is significant investment in chemical recycling but it is still in its infancy: it works in labs where the quality of the feedstock – the plastic to be recycled – can be tightly controlled but, in the real world, where a rogue shoe can find its way into a recycling bag, there are likely to be more challenges. 

Meanwhile, NGOs warn there is an environmental cost to recycling. There is not yet enough research about the relative environmental impacts of chemical recycling, mechanical recycling, virgin-plastic production and production of alternatives, such as glass or cotton. Factors such as the transportation of end-use products play a part – for instance, plastic bottles have a smaller carbon footprint than glass bottles because they are lighter.

The economic impact of the pandemic and the related drop in virgin plastic prices reduced demand for more costly recycled materials and chemical recycling projects slowed due to delayed investment decisions. Sustainability slipped down the agenda during the crisis but the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow in November is refocusing minds.

Regulatory action linked to coronavirus recovery has already been introduced in the form of the EU plastics charge, which came on top of existing announcements from Italy, Spain and the UK – all of which are planning to introduce plastic taxes. Meanwhile, signatories to the US Plastics Pact and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation are eager to show progress.

Consumers, too, are piling on pressure and many brands have committed to using more recycled material. Unilever, for instance, has pledged to halve virgin plastic use by 2025, and both Tesco and Mars have begun trialling food-grade chemically recycled plastics. BASF has predicted Europe could reach 1 million tons per year of chemically recycled plastics by 2025.

A circular economy

Solving the problem of plastic is one of the biggest challenges humanity has faced. Nearly all manufactured goods contain plastics and many are essential – if items containing plastic were removed from hospitals, for instance, there would be little remaining.

“To the general public, the plastic problem is all about disposable single-use packaging," says Charlotte Williams, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Oxford and a Lead Researcher on the Future of Plastics. "But it’s essential to realise that demonising polymers and plastics is not the solution. They are more than simply packaging. We use plastics because they can do things other materials cannot. Many of the technologies of the future, from electric transport to medical devices, will rely on really good polymeric materials.”

The solution is likely to involve improving recycling infrastructures; designing new, more sustainable plastics; designing products with an end-of-life plan; finding new ways to degrade plastics – such as plastic-eating mealworms and microbes; and diversifying the raw materials that make plastics to plant-based alternatives. The goal is a circular economy that minimises the environmental impact of plastics without losing their many benefits. Plastics is not the problem, it's plastic waste. It is a future managing director Dean Curtis is so determined to achieve he has recruited an Olympic psychologist from British Rowing to help him build the kind of high-performance culture that can take on a challenge of this scale.