Circularity and Solving a Sustainability Conundrum: Carbon Emissions vs Plastic Trash

by | Jan 11, 2024 | Sustainability

Jill Burdette

Jill Burdette

Director, Strategic Accounts

Here’s an interesting challenge: When we look for packaging solutions, the approach that has the smallest carbon footprint tied to it is often plastic—bottles, jars, bags, etc. It’s counterintuitive, but plastic production is highly optimized, and the result is low carbon emissions, even when using fossil fuel feedstocks. But plastic contributes enormously to global refuse problems. It seems to last forever, filling landfills and the environment.

The obvious answer is recycling: make new plastic out of old plastic. It sounds simple, but it’s very difficult to implement on a large scale, so only about 9% of plastic produced globally is recycled.

eBook: Automation Technology Closes Loop on Circular PlasticsIn a new eBook, Automation Technology Closes the Loop on Circular Plastics, now downloadable from, we examine the scale of the problem and offer suggestions on how the concept of a truly circular economy extends far beyond just recycling.

Recycling is certainly part of the solution, and we look at various options, including:

  • Mechanical recycling
  • Dissolution
  • Depolymerization
  • Conversion via pyrolysis

These are all important, and we give examples of companies following each approach. We even throw in some practical ideas showing how improving instrumentation and operational control makes it easier to optimize critical parts of the processes.

But how do we advance to the next step and move into a mindset and practice where we think about circularity at all phases from start to finish of the value chain?

Producers must think about the sustainability aspects of every manufacturing step, and how each one fits into the circular structure. Emerson and AspenTech offer digital tools, hardware, and software to make this possible. Digitalization provides value by saving energy and minimizing waste at most steps through the plastics value chain, including:

  • Feedstock production: Optimize and control production of feedstocks for polymers to minimize emissions and waste.
  • Polymer production: Optimize and control polymer production to reduce energy and feedstock loss with lower waste.
  • Waste collection: Efficient capture of post-consumer products to reintegrate into new plastic production.
  • Advanced recycling: Optimize advanced recycling processes to maximize reuse of material, while capturing and tracking use of post-consumer resin throughout the process to support certification.
  • Recyclate upgrading: Rework pyrolysis oil for reuse as feedstock for new polymers.
  • Throughout circularity: Data storage and management.

As you can see, this requires a lot of new thinking and practices. Fortunately, when implemented, these can save money, as well as improve sustainability. We can make a difference.

Download the eBook to get more information, and consider visiting Emerson’s Advanced Chemical Recycling solutions at to explore solutions. You can also connect and interact with other engineers in the Environmental Groups at the Emerson Exchange 365 community.

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The opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the authors. Content published here is not read or approved by Emerson before it is posted and does not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Emerson.

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