The future of plastics: an outlook

A post by:     Michael Kundel
Last updated: 2023-12-05

The world is facing major challenges - and in some cases profound upheavals. What does this mean for the plastics industry - do plastics have a future and, if so, what does it look like? In this article, I venture an outlook on upcoming trends and innovations in plastics.

These eight trends are becoming increasingly important

What does the future of plastics look like? Eight main trends have recently emerged and are increasingly growing in importance.

1. More conscious use of plastics

In the beginning, we enthusiastically used plastics everywhere. That's different today.

Although the aimless avoidance of plastics is not a solution - as I recently showed using the example of film packaging for cucumbers - a more conscious use of plastics is important .

It is therefore undeniable that we will have to scrutinise their use more closely in future . Where does their use make sense? Where are other materials the better alternative?

One example: When you used to go to a fast food restaurant, you would leave a mountain of polystyrene and paper behind. That is completely unnecessary. We will also be able to identify other areas in the future where it is better to do without plastics.

The acceptance of plastics depends largely on how credible their necessity and ultimately their recycling options are.

2. Use in new high technologies

I find one area particularly exciting for the future of plastics: their use in ever new areas of high technology.

In the past, it was taken for granted that bioreactors were built with stainless steel containers. Today, high-purity plastic films for up to several thousand litres of liquid are increasingly being used inside, enabling the sterile and safe fermentation of active ingredients. The process advantages are enormous.

The same applies to implants in medicine, which today are produced using injection moulding or 3D printing .

Battery storage systems are also considered an indispensable part of the energy transition and require high-performance membranes made from plastics , for example in lithium iron phosphate batteries. The future will show that plastics will enable further major progress to be made towards achieving climate neutrality.

All this shows that the potential of plastics to improve people's quality of life is far from exhausted, even after well over 100 years.

3. Consistent dematerialisation

One current trend is increasing dematerialisation, i.e. the strategy of greatly reducing material flows that are primarily caused by economic activity. To this end, the material and energy consumption of the socio-economic system is to be greatly reduced.

This trend has characterised the plastics industry for several years - and I am sure that it will continue.

Plastics can generally contribute to ever thinner, lighter and more cost-effective solutions in the construction, automotive, aviation and healthcare industries.

They are therefore part of a process that is of central importance, particularly for climate protection.

Advances in the development of new materials in the plastics sector will consistently drive dematerialisation in the coming years.

4. More and more individualisation

In today's world, the topic of individualisation is also becoming increasingly important. This affects several areas that are also important for RENOLIT.

At RENOLIT, for example, we are aware of people's growing need to customise their choice of surfaces and colours in the interior Surfaces, pools and building elements sector. The advertising and leisure industry is also increasingly demanding this.

In medical technology, on the other hand, increasingly specialised applications are preventing off-the-shelf solutions. As technologies become ever more efficient and precise, the materials used, their properties and surfaces must also keep pace.

Against this background, high-quality polymer films such as those we produce at RENOLIT can cater for the trend towards individuality.

5. Defossilisation of plastics

As in all other areas of our lives, the plastics industry must also face up to the need for consistent decarbonisation. In doing so, we should think in different directions .

On the one hand, we naturally need more renewable sources of raw materials. At the same time, we also need comprehensive plastics recycling and processes that are electrified with renewable energy for the production and processing of plastics.

We therefore need alternatives to fossil resources along the entire value chain. This applies both to the raw materials used for the production of plastics themselves and to the areas of energy generation through to packaging and transport.

We at RENOLIT are working flat out on all of these topics. Here are a few examples:

  • In this year, we already have the first certified products on the market with our bioattributed PVC films.
  • We are working in partnership on the development of a fossil-free monomer , i.e. a precursor to the polymer .
  • At RENOLIT, we have also set ourselves a specific target for our group of companies to achieve CO2 neutrality. This will be consistently implemented in stages up to 2045 .

It is clear to me that the future of plastics will be increasingly fossil-free.

6. Creating a genuine circular economy

Plastics represent a real value if they are properly separated and collected. I am therefore always concerned when I see how many plastics are still simply thrown away, dumped or often incinerated at the end of their life cycle.

At RENOLIT, we are committed to the goal of a genuine circular economy. It is clear to us that we need to move away from a linear economy towards an effective recycling economy with consistent reutilisation.

This requires more initiatives along the value chain that collect, sort, recycle and reuse plastic products at the end of their life cycle.

This has a direct impact on the future of plastics.

One building block could be the digitalisation of plastic products. The aim here is to clearly record the materials used so that the product remains identifiable along the entire value chain and can ideally be mechanically recycled.

Such a digital product passport (DPP) is being developed at EU level with the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR) and will bring us all closer to the goal of a circular economy.

7. Prevention of environmental pollution

You are all familiar with the images of littered rivers and millions upon millions of tonnes of plastic floating in the sea.

The future of plastics must include stopping this development in the long term. In addition to the establishment of a - worldwide! - functioning recycling economy, this also requires a change in social awareness when dealing with plastics.

We need to ensure that plastics are recognised by the wider global community as genuine recyclable materials that are worth collecting and recycling. This will be a much greater challenge in newly industrialising countries than in developed countries due to the existential problems people often face. We should be aware of this we should be aware of this.

At the same time, we in the industry must use certified systems to ensure that the release of raw material granulates into the environment is avoided.

There are already good approaches here with the Operation Clean Sweep certification initiative, which RENOLIT will also have implemented at its sites worldwide by the end of 2024.

8. Climate protection through plastics

In my view, one of the most important trends of the future will be the realisation of how much plastics can help with the millennium challenge of climate protection. Plastics can be used to make massive savings in energy and emissions in many areas.

I would like to give two specific examples of this:

  • PVC-U window profiles, which are also coated with RENOLIT high-performance films can be recycled several times at the end of their life cycle and incorporated into new profiles, saving 75% of CO2 emissions compared to the use of new raw materials.
  • Our synthetic roofing membranes for waterproofing flat roofs are equipped with a special pigment technology and and reflect solar radiation . This reduces the heat input into the building envelope and the energy required to cool the building .

    In conjunction with an installed PV system, this reflection technology even increases the efficiency of electricity generation. This is an issue that is becoming increasingly important in the wake of climate change, especially in cities.

This trend will continue to grow in many areas, especially in the energy-intensive building sector. From new battery technologies and weight savings to thermal management - plastics will become an integral part of climate protection.

We need to drive this development forward with all our might and consistently develop existing technologies further.

The European plastics industry is being slowed down

The entire plastics industry is facing enormous challenges in order to serve these trends and turn the opportunities into reality.

In order to be able to develop and offer solutions for the trends described above, a legal framework is required that makes this possible and does not restrict it.

Essentially, it is about being able to utilise the best technical and economic solutions without ideology.

At the same time, the European single market must finally become a level playing field again. The industry cannot constantly adapt to different regulations and interpretations in the member states. We need more standardisation again so that the industry can benefit from the advantages of the single market.

What these trends mean for RENOLIT

Despite all the adversities of many current framework conditions, we at RENOLIT are on the right track and are already working on many of the trends mentioned above. In some areas, we even already have solutions ready.

Here are some current examples:

  • This year, we launched a film made from bioattributed PVC as a substitute for fossil raw materials.

  • The development of internal recycling capacities at many of our locations is progressing and we have realised our first customer projects for taking back their plastic waste

  • We are currently developing product lines specifically with recyclate and marketing them accordingly, for example for the furniture industry.

  • We are working on future technologies for renewable energy generation through wind power, where we want to use film solutions to reduce both erosion and the adhesion of ice on the rotor blades.

  • We have synthetic membranes in our portfolio that are used for the intermediate storage of energy in pumped-storage power stations or for rainwater storage in particularly dry regions.

  • Our thermoformable lightweight panels made of honeycomb structures can contribute to weight reduction and thus resource conservation in the mobility industry.

  • High-performance films from RENOLIT use a special pigment technology to reduce the heat input in building elements and help to permanently relieve the window profile and the entire window construction in the building envelope.

  • In our high-performance films, powerful biotechnologically manufactured preparations are produced safely and with high purity, which can contain pandemics and other degenerative diseases.

Conclusion: the future needs plastics

Plastics are an important part of the solution to many future issues. In many areas, they enable developments that were never previously thought possible. Plastics are therefore a real driver of progress.