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Frequent questions (and answers!) About one of the hottest growth areas in plastics recycling
You may have read that recent developments in advanced recycling are turning old problems into new opportunities. More and more advanced recycling technologies are starting where traditional recycling ends and are helping to convert significantly more old plastics into new products, many of which can be recycled over and over again. It is also an area where technological developments create new business models with exciting, promising results for the environment.
As with anything that gets a lot of attention, of course, people have questions. Here are some of the answers.
Q. First off, what is advanced plastic recycling?
A. Put simply, advanced recycling uses the power of science to turn used plastics into new products that can be recycled over and over again. By transforming hard-to-recycle plastic into a reusable resource, this innovative solution helps create a more sustainable economy and a better environment for future generations.
More precisely: These technologies break down used plastic into its original form so that a multitude of new products can be created from it. Here’s how we define it at PlasticMakers.org: “Advanced plastic recycling, also known as chemical recycling, refers to various technologies that convert old plastics into their original building blocks, specialty polymers and raw materials for new plastics and chemical products, waxes and other non-fuel products.”
Q. Why is advanced recycling important?
A. A complementary solution to traditional recycling is needed now more than ever as plastic packaging becomes more complex to meet commercial needs, which can pose challenges for traditional recycling methods. By specializing in commonly used plastics that are difficult to recycle (e.g. snack packaging, grocery bags, tubes and plastic toys), advanced recycling picks up where traditional recycling leaves off.
Today the United States recycles about 9% of plastic. Advanced recycling is key to ending plastic waste and eliminating plastic from the environment, as it enables the collection and reuse of large amounts of used plastic that are not currently being recycled. As a complement to traditional recycling methods, advanced recycling is critical to achieving the goal of reusing, recycling, or reclaiming 100% of used plastic packaging in the U.S. by 2040 Plastic for food, medical, and pharmaceuticals – a huge breakthrough in plastics recycling.
Q. Some say advanced recycling has been around for decades; what is different now?
A. Just as our cell phones have changed MUCH in the last few decades, so has advanced recycling technology. (Someone misses carrying around an eight-pound clamshell phone? Didn’t think so.) Recently, advanced recycling technologies have changed in two ways. First, they are being built on a commercial scale. These large, multi-million dollar facilities can process millions of tons of plastic annually. Second, the technologies themselves can do a lot more. Here are three key examples that will help revolutionize our ability to recycle many of the plastics used today.
- Mixed plastics. Today’s modern recycling technologies can handle unsorted mixed plastics, including all types of packaging (think chip bags, snack packaging, grocery bags – even toys). This makes it much easier and more efficient to recycle large amounts of discarded plastic that traditional recyclers cannot use.
- Foam food containers. Traditional methods of recycling polystyrene foam, often used for protective packaging (think high-priced electronics) along with leftover food and scraps, have had limited success. Today’s advanced recycling technologies can return polystyrene to its original form (styrene) that can be used over and over again.
- Highly functional, high-performance recycled plastics for food, medicine and pharmaceuticals. Unlike most forms of traditional recycling, advanced recycling enables manufacturers to create high-performance plastics for food, medical, and pharmaceutical uses. And new plastics made from advanced recycling processes can be as pure and powerful as new or “new” plastic.
Q. I like what I hear about advanced recycling, but why isn’t it happening in my community and who is driving it?
A. Just like 5G, wireless broadband and EV charging stations, it will take time to build an advanced recycling infrastructure. But the number of announcements and projects is growing so fast that it is difficult to keep track of them. I recently wrote on breaking announcements highlighting some of the international companies and others that are creating a tangible momentum in advanced recycling, including Chevron Phillips Chemical, Eastman Chemical Company, ExxonMobil, LyondellBasell, and others.
Companies like this – with multiple stakeholders and cautious shareholders – invest in advanced recycling because it makes good business sense and contributes to sustainability. In addition, many of these larger, more established companies work with rapidly evolving providers of advanced recycling technology. Agilyx, Altera Energy, Braven Environmental, Brightmark, Greenmantra Technologies and PlasticEnergy are just a few of the names in this innovative space.
Q. Are these advanced recycling investments “pilot programs” or fully functional commercial facilities?
A. As companies continue to test new technologies to bring them to market, the trend is increasingly towards recycling plastics on a commercial scale, especially as large plastics manufacturers develop new plastics made from recycled materials from advanced recycling. Since 2017, investments of around 6 billion US dollars to modernize recycling have been announced in the USA. Of that, about 80%, or $ 4.8 billion, is dedicated to advanced recycling technologies. Existing or planned advanced recycling facilities have the potential to divert approximately 7 billion pounds of used plastics from landfills, the equivalent of the weight of 28,000 Statues of Liberty.
Q. While recycling used plastics to new plastics clearly contributes to a circular economy for plastics, why recycle plastics into fuel that is only used once?
A. Used plastics should generally be put to the best possible and maximum possible use, which may vary by location. From an economic point of view, most assume that new plastics will be the most widely used. But maybe not always and everywhere.
Advanced recycling facilities are expected to be widely dispersed, from major American cities to developing communities in other parts of the world. Each plant will manufacture products that meet the ecological and economic needs of that region. For example, a community in the Philippines may have more success converting used plastic into a locally needed fuel than trying to make and commercialize new plastic. Making fuel from used plastic keeps it out of our oceans, contributes to sustainability, and makes a lot more sense than burying it in a landfill.
And as these technologies expand and mature, many are expected to move from making a fuel such as extremely low sulfur (for example) diesel to plastics, depending on economics and other factors. These technologies and companies are agile and can often adapt to market needs. In the end, Plastics-to-Plastics could become the predominant use.
Q. Is converting plastic to fuel really recycling?
Some people prefer the name “recycling” rather than “recycling” to describe the conversion of used plastic into fuel, and have suggested that “recycling” is better suited to converting used plastic into new plastic and other high quality products to describe. We are satisfied with this distinction; What is important is that we use advanced technology to remove much more plastic from the landfill and turn more used plastic resources into their best and highest uses.
Q. If advanced recycling is successful, is there really that much demand to soak up the supply?
A. That sure seems to be the case. Today, the demand for recycled plastic far exceeds the supply – the current supply only covers 6% of the demand, according to Closed Loop Partners.
In addition, more than 500 companies, including many large consumer brands, have committed to using significantly more recycled plastic in their packaging and consumer products over the next few years. This shift will help shift the entire manufacturing supply chain towards a more circular economy, where used plastics are regularly used to make new products, thereby keeping plastics out of the environment. Advanced recycling is absolutely essential to meet the growing demand for recycled plastics in products.
Q. Why are plastics manufacturers interested in advanced plastics recycling? Why don’t you just keep doing what you did?
A. America’s plastics manufacturers are committed to ending waste and reusing today’s resources to protect and preserve our environment for future generations. Our customers are asking for new products that will help them meet their sustainability goals, such as recycled plastics, and we will deliver them. And our customers’ customers – American consumers – are demanding that companies take action and offer concrete solutions to combat plastic waste and the climate crisis. Advanced recycling is driving the US economy toward a sustainable future by reducing plastic waste through more sustainable management of our resources.
More questions will arise as these technologies mature and become widespread. I also try to answer these questions. In the meantime, follow us on PlasticMakers.org to learn more about the promise of advanced recycling for plastics.