The demand for plastic is expected to nearly double by 2030. Today, the supply of recycled plastics only meets 6% of the overall North American plastics demand, resulting in a significant opportunity for recycled plastics to fill the industry need. According to Smithers in an article published in May 2022, the rapid growth of post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR) packaging is expected through 2026. That’s because many businesses are eager to use PCR to reduce the carbon footprint of their packaging – something more and more consumers are calling for in the everyday products they purchase.   

Plastics have many benefits – they have proved to be one of the few materials that can adapt to the dynamic nature of global industries and consumerism, delivering benefits that include durability, safety, disease prevention, and cost-effectiveness – not to mention being extremely lightweight compared to glass and metal alternatives. But it’s important to address the unintended environmental consequences of plastics and the waste they create. So, how do we close the gap and recycle more plastic? In a recent webinar hosted by Antea Group called Advanced Recycling: A Critical Tool for Achieving Plastics Circularity, Peylina Chu, Vice President of ESG Strategy at Antea Group, leads a conversation with experts in the plastics recycling field to discuss advanced recycling, how it can help us effectively recycle and reuse more plastics, and how it works in tandem with mechanical recycling to get us closer to the goal of a more circular or closed-loop recycling system. 

To see the full discussion with experts from Purecycle, Ravago, Nexus Circular, and the PLASTICS Industry Association, click the button below to watch the webinar on-demand. 

Watch On-Demand

Solutions to the Plastic Waste Problem 

 Advanced recycling is defined by Closed Loop Partners as the process of using solvents, enzymes, heat, and / or sound waves to purify or break down plastic waste for recycling. Under the umbrella term of advanced recycling, there are a range of technologies, including purification, decomposition and conversion that seek to repurpose complex plastic waste streams into valuable materials which can be used in new products and packaging. Advanced recycling technologies are emerging as a potential solution for difficult-to-recycle plastics that can’t be processed by mechanical recycling.  

Mechanical recycling is the traditional type of recycling you think of that has been around for decades and involves physical processes of sorting, grinding, washing, separating, drying, re-granulating, and compounding. Mechanical recycling has a low tolerance for contamination from undesired resins and foreign materials meaning that difficult-to-recycle materials are being sent to landfill, possibly incinerated, or lost to the environment. 

To adequately address the plastic waste problem, both mechanical and advanced recycling are necessary. Plastic waste can’t be solved by one single solution, sector, technology, or approach. A multi-prong approach is the key to tackling this waste challenge.  

The ideal system would be a circular system for plastics. That requires consciously designing systems and products to use fewer materials from the outset, while keeping existing materials in circulation at their highest value for as many generations as possible – if not infinitely. The key to taking steps toward this circular system involves using both mechanical and advanced recycling. 

How Can Advanced Recycling Support a Circular Plastics Supply Chain? 

In the waste hierarchy developed by the EPA, waste management strategies are ordered from most to least preferred as follows:  

  • Reduce  
  • Reuse 
  • Recycle 
  • Energy Recovery 
  • Disposal  

 

Reduce and reuse should always be the primary objectives, followed by traditional mechanical recycling because of the lower environmental impact compared to advanced recycling technologies. Advanced recycling should be used as a complement to cover the areas in which mechanical recycling is limited or falling short. 

Mechanical recycling plays a huge role in the recycling infrastructure already, but it still has limitations in collection, sorting, and preparation. With mechanical recycling, materials are downcycled resulting in an output with less value than the input. Additionally, there are limits on how many times material can be mechanically recycled before it is eventually disposed of, meaning it’s not a closed-loop system. However, advanced recycling can continue the recycling process several times over and, in some cases, indefinitely. 

Another area where advanced recycling offers major benefits is in helping businesses reach their PCR goals, especially for applications where high-quality plastics are required and regulated, such as food packaging, healthcare packaging, single-use medical devices, life sciences laboratory plastics, and biotech manufacturing. Hundreds of the largest companies in the world are making commitments to help reduce the amount of plastics ending up in landfills, and they could look to advanced recycling technologies to assist with that. Investments in these different technologies in recent years are resulting in rapid growth in the advanced recycling industry with several advanced recycling companies beginning to operate at commercial scale within the US. 

The combination of advanced recycling and mechanical recycling can help us achieve a circular plastics supply chain.  

Comparing Environmental Impacts of Recycling Processes 

Some questions remain surrounding the overall impacts and sustainability of advanced recycling processes on the environment. Advanced recycling has received recent criticism claiming its processes are energy-intensive and have a high carbon footprint. Today, advanced recycling does have a higher environmental impact than mechanical recycling; however, in general, advanced recycling has a lower impact than creating virgin plastics from fossil fuels. Advanced recycling technologies that limit breakdown of the plastic polymer (such as purification and decomposition) have lower environmental impacts than recycling technologies that break down the plastic polymer further to hydrocarbon building blocks (such as conversion technologies).  

Pyrolysis is a form of thermal conversion that has received a lot of attention. Pyrolysis is different from incineration in that it breaks down plastic waste at high temperatures (300-900 degrees Celsius) in the absence of oxygen to produce liquid oil (pyrolysis oil). This pyrolysis oil can be further processed into virgin-like new plastic (recycling) or fuel (recovery). While creating fuel from plastics reduces our need for more fossil fuels, the greater value is using pyrolysis oil to create new plastics – an opportunity for a truly circular plastics supply chain.  

The different advanced recycling technologies are complex, as are their environmental impacts, with recyclers continuing to optimize their operations as well as researching and evaluating the full impact of their operations through life cycle assessments. Stakeholders should continue to demand transparency and remain engaged in the ongoing development and commercialization of the different technologies to better understand how advanced recycling companies are measuring, monitoring, and looking to improve their performance. 

By continuing to remain engaged and seeking further education, consumers, businesses, and policy makers alike can learn how advanced recycling helps the entire plastics recycling system and work towards a circular plastics supply chain. This industry and the technologies behind it are still evolving and will only get better and more efficient with time. As advanced recycling technologies mature, they will save more carbon dioxide, water, and energy, but we must start somewhere. 

The Bottom Line 

The plastics recycling challenge isn’t going away. Circularity is more important than ever, and we should be looking for ways to achieve a truly circular plastics economy. As a company, you can leverage your influence to demand transparency and signal demand for recycled plastics. Since plastic waste will likely be more regulated in the future, being proactive now will help you get a jumpstart before potential regulations become reality. Proactivity as a business can include approaching reclaimers and recyclers and collaborating on solutions for circular supply chains.  

Additionally, as the advanced recycling industry continues to grow and more investments are made, manufacturers, recyclers and industry organizations should focus on the following three things to help make advanced recycling a more viable and widely available resource: 

  • Educate stakeholders on the different advanced recycling technologies 
  • Establish and follow through with sustainability commitments/pledges around PCR content 
  • Support new recycling legislation that ensures responsible operations and invest in recycling companies that are transparent in their operations and engaged with stakeholders across the value chain 

In closing, advanced recycling is showing a lot of promise in the plastics world as technologies evolve and scale. And while it is one piece of the puzzle, along with mechanical recycling, advanced recycling is poised to help plastics take a big step toward a circular supply chain.  

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