There’s no consensus yet on whether chemical recycling is the silver bullet for the growing plastic pollution problem. What is clear, however, is that a solution needs to be found — and fast.
Plastic and the use of plastic are not going away anytime soon. This quintessential representation of environmental pollution is readily available and highly valued in product packaging.
Despite consumer calls for bans on single-use plastic and statewide legislation addressing these demands, plastic in all its forms has a large global market. Current demand for PET/PETE plastic and polyester fiber alone is nearly $130 billion with global production expected to grow 3-4% annually through 2022.
For the foreseeable future, companies will remain bound to plastics in their production cycles. This article will look at how industry can reduce the environmental impact of plastic, reuse material already circulating in the economic value stream, and create a circular recycling mechanism is at the heart and promise of chemical recycling.
How Plastics Are Recycled Today
Historically, the U.S. used two mechanisms for managing plastics recycling efforts: shipping plastic waste to China and Southeast Asia to recycle and discard; and mechanically recycling a small portion domestically.
In 2018, China stopped accepting plastic imports and other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam swiftly followed suit. Now, municipalities across the U.S. are collecting the full spectrum of “recyclable” plastics and promptly routing them directly to landfills or incineration sites.
Commonly used PET/PETE (#1) and HDPE (#2) plastics are still mechanically recycled in the U.S. but at varying levels of effectiveness due to the expense and energy required. Batch contamination from mixing incompatible plastic types (e.g., PET/PETE with PVC) remains an ongoing recycling challenge, too.
The most significant limitation to mechanical recycling is its ability to only downcycle plastic or to produce lesser-value plastic items. The result is that less than 10% of all plastic gets recycled in the U.S. today.
What Is Chemical Recycling?
Chemical recycling takes plastic back to the source. Plastics are polymers made by fusing two kinds of oil via chemical reaction. In the chemical recycling process, plastic is decomposed or separated into its essential parts: crude oil and natural gas. After the depolymerization process, contaminants like food or coloring are removed so that the material can be repolymerized and recycled into good-as-new plastic.
Chemical recycling offers several advantages to traditional mechanical recycling. First, plastic batch contamination is not a roadblock. Most low-value and waste plastic can be deconstructed, decontaminated, purified and repolymerized into recycled plastic resin.
Second, chemically recycled plastic can be recycled a near infinite number of times with minimal material loss. Third, it can be upcycled into products of same or increased value from its original use. Fourth, the “gold standard” in chemical recycling does not involve the use of external heat or pressure, which significantly reduces the energy intensity of operations.
Chemical Recycling Is Not a One-Size-Fits-All Cure
Chemical recycling is an umbrella term that conveys the different technologies for deconstructing and repurposing various plastic types to be used as raw material inputs for new products. The more than 60 global technology providers at various levels of commercialization fall into three main technology buckets:
Purification: a process that dissolves plastic in a solvent to separate and purify the plastic mixture and does not break down the polymer into separate monomers.
Decomposition: a depolymerization process that uses thermal, chemical or biological starter components to break plastic polymers into base monomers and purify the plastic waste for reuse.
Conversion: a process similar to decomposition with outputs of liquid or gaseous hydrocarbons to be used in intermediate materials and monomers to make new plastics.
Systemic Hurdles to Scaling Chemical Recycling
For chemical recycling technologies to meet the demands of plastic-use growth and create a circular system of upcycled plastics, several challenges need to be resolved in the coming decade.
1. The cost of recycled materials needs to be on par or less than the cost of virgin plastics. Today, there is little market incentive for companies to pay a premium for plastic material inputs. Crude oil prices hover below $60 per barrel, propping up our dependency on virgin plastics. The break-even cost for recycled plastics is closer to $100 per barrel.
2. Processing capacity for chemically recycled plastics must increase exponentially. Global market demand for polyethylene alone in 2017 was 80 million tons. Only a few chemical recyclers, such as Loop Industries and Carbios, are commercial and actively processing plastics, albeit at low-volume levels — around 10,000-15,000 metric tons of plastic per plant per year. Agilyx, with its Tigard, Oregon, facility, processes less than 4,000 metric tons of polystyrene annually.
3. Production scale is wholly reliant on facilities that exist and are operational. All major chemical recycling companies are planning new facilities or retrofitting existing plants between now and 2025.
4. Proving to the public that chemical recycling is more environmentally friendly than virgin plastics production and mechanical recycling. Doing so would go a long way toward making a value-added sustainability business case for pursuing these technologies.
Steps Industry Can Take to Adopt Chemical Recycling
Coca-Cola, Unilever and Nestle have pledged to source recycled plastic for their food and beverage and consumer product goods. Industry players in textiles, agriculture, construction and consumer electronics must quickly follow suit. Here are three ways companies can pair desire with action:
1. Build an internal business case for executive leadership that emphasizes the medium-to-long-term value of investing in chemical recycling technologies. Quantify how chemically revalorized plastics will optimize and streamline a company’s product design processes, material sourcing strategy, and value chain GHG emissions.
2. Partner with the right chemical recycler for your business needs. Focus on your company’s product waste streams and the regions in which they occur. Research the technology that best supports your company’s needs and engage the innovators that offer the capacity and willingness to partner with you.
3. Plan to co-locate manufacturing facilities close to municipal recycling waste streams and chemical recycling facilities. Without a clear strategy to maximize waste feedstocks into the system and minimize travel for processing, chemical recycling will not be market competitive anytime soon.
Chemical recycling can tackle the three Rs of sustainability: reducing material throughput of virgin plastic resin by creating a system of near-infinite plastic, and reuse within a circular plastic material system that prizes recycled content over virgin. With a focus on overcoming the systemic hurdles the process currently faces, a path to widespread implementation will open.