Advanced Plastics Recycling: Challenges, Concerns, and Closing the Loop

On the second day of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) Engage 2021 virtual conference, the focus turned to chemical recycling. The day’s content began with a Masterclass on Advanced Plastics Recycling. Paula Luu, Project Director with the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners (CLP) shared insights from recent research on what needs to be true to scale new technologies that help close the loop for plastics. The conversation covered a breakdown of advanced recycling processes, their role in the circular economy, concerns and challenges, and the future outlook for the industry.

Understanding the Diversity of the Sector

Luu began the session by discussing the sector in the context of circularity. “Advanced plastics recycling is a diverse sector, it is a nascent sector, and it’s one tool of many tools that address plastic waste,” she stressed. It should be viewed as part of a strategy toolbox, which includes both upstream and downstream solutions. She emphasized that it is not the only solution, but that it can contribute to a circular system for plastics when employed alongside reuse and refills, innovative product design, mechanical recycling technologies, and policies that incentivize circularity.

CLP has conducted research on advanced recycling technologies to provide insight and understanding of the industry landscape. The firm’s 2019 report, “Accelerating Circular Supply Chains for Plastics”, identified the types of technologies and technology providers in this sector. Expanding on that research, CLP is releasing a follow-on report this year that will include further detail on the technologies, the associated environmental and human health impacts, and the conditions necessary to safely and effectively scale. 

As CLP defines it, advanced recycling encompasses dozens of different technology processes that purify or break down the polymer into components that can be recirculated back into manufacturing. There are three main technology categories: purification, depolymerization, and conversion. Purification technologies, such as dissolution or de-inking, result in an output of polymers that, as the name suggests, physically purify out of additives or other contaminants. The new report distinguishes between partial and full breakdown for both the depolymerization and conversion categories. Depolymerization involves a reaction that results in oligomers (partial) or monomers (full), much of which can be repolymerized back into plastics. Conversion technologies, suitable for mixed plastic waste, result in a variety of molecular outputs such as crude oil, naphtha, and ethylene (from partial conversion) or methanol, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen (full conversion).

Looking at this breakdown of technologies, the breadth and depth of this sector is apparent. With processes ranging from enzymatic to ultrasonic, advanced recycling technologies are not a single innovation, but instead a myriad of applications with different inputs and outputs.

Expanding the Scope

Within the context of the circular economy, there can be uncertainty and disagreement over the role of advanced recycling. How should it be viewed – as a solution for plastic waste? An alternative to fossil fuel feedstocks? An end-of-life option for difficult-to-recycle materials? All of the above, or something else entirely? “That’s one of the key questions that we set out to understand,” answered Luu. She pointed to the tendency to focus on single-use plastics as the material to solve for, whether at conferences or in policy development. Advanced recycling technologies can certainly address packaging, but the scope should be expanded to include plastics from other sources, such as apparel or electronics. “There are plenty of technologies that address the types of plastic that often go undiscussed in society, like waste from construction, or waste from health care.” These hard-to-recycle plastics today have no end of life solutions; advanced recycling is one option that can address these materials. 

Her comments highlight the importance of taking a systems-thinking approach. In the context of sustainable packaging, there is a common desire to turn waste packaging into new packaging. Viewing circularity at the polymer or molecule level opens up the opportunity to expand the scope by including other challenging materials within the system. Luu emphasized that consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands and retailers should be concerned with materials beyond the packaging they use because it presents the possibility to change the economics of these solutions. As an example, she described the potential for a single technology, such as an enzymatic process that targets PET, to process non-bottle PET (like thermoforms and colored PET) alongside polyester apparel within the same region, which could create an economically viable model. “It’s in the best interest for cross-sector collaboration,” she said, “And that’s what CLP is really excited about – trying to understand where those connection points across sectors and across materials can exist in the context of these technology solutions.”

Assessing the Impact

While keeping material within the system is an important aspect of the circular economy, true circularity also takes into account additional factors, such as carbon emissions and human and environmental health impacts. Much of the research in this field has identified the need for more, and better, life cycle assessment (LCA) data to improve our understanding of the full impact of these technologies.

Luu agrees that there is a need for more data, not only on new technologies but also reevaluating the data for existing technologies. Many of the more established processes are being “retooled” to address different inputs and produce different outputs, and therefore the existing data may not be accurate. Beyond the data used in LCA studies, we also need a better understanding of the differences and nuances of the results. Luu provided her take on how to effectively think through LCAs, which includes a critical look into credibility, boundaries and assumptions, local inputs, claims and comparisons, and the limitations of data.

LCA results can be impacted by a variety of factors, such as the energy grid mix used or the boundaries of the system evaluated, which can significantly change the results, rendering some comparisons unfair or inaccurate. These aspects must be well understood and communicated to ensure accurate interpretation of results, especially if they are used as a basis for decision making.

Transparency will be critical if the advanced recycling industry is going to successfully scale, according to Luu. “We need to up our degree of transparency on life cycle assessment so that we’re making sure that we’re using the information that’s put out to market correctly and fairly.” This call for open and accurate data provides an actionable item for stakeholders looking to support the scaling of these technologies, either through pushing for transparency or by providing the necessary data.

Addressing the Concerns

In addition to accurate LCAs, there are significant uncertainties that need to be addressed for the industry to scale. One concern is the risk of getting locked into a high-carbon solution by investing in energy intensive technologies and the associated development of facilities and supply chains. Luu acknowledged that this is indeed a risk, but that the best way to mitigate it is through ensuring that we invest in best-in-class technology solutions that help us address the diversity of plastics on the market. Mechanical recycling will continue to play an important role and offer waste processing with a lower carbon footprint than all of the advanced recycling technologies that CLP evaluated. However, these newer technologies have the ability to produce higher-value feedstocks as outputs. “Understanding the trade-offs between solutions (and data and disclosure) to be able to direct investment into right-sizing this sector is going to be really critical.” 

“These technologies are tools, and neither the technology or the company can single-handedly ensure circularity,” she stressed. “It’s really up to the stakeholders to support that and it means creating the right policies,” referring to regulations that provide guidance and incentives to decarbonize plastics production and encourage recycled content. It will be essential for investors to support best-in-class solutions that maximize value creation and reduce impacts compared to virgin systems. Brands, retailers, and NGOs all have a role to play in ensuring proper governance and stabilizing the supply.

Another area of concern is the pace of development. CLP’s 2019 report found that, on average, advanced recycling technologies take 17 years to reach growth scale. That time period can seem unacceptably long when compared to looming climate deadlines and aggressive short-term recycling goals, prompting the question of whether the industry is developing at the pace needed to meet these challenges. Luu indicated the rapid change that has occurred in the industry recently, pointing to several developments in the previous six months. “That 17-year number, for me, reflects historical data,” Luu said, “and again, it comes back to: What is our political will? What is our strategic and financial capacity to scale best-in-class technologies to reach those goals?” The time to scale could dramatically decrease with the implementation of supportive policies and market choices. Ultimately, it will be up to stakeholders using their influence and power to shape the timeline of adoption and acceleration.

Environmental justice issues are also a common point of trepidation: will these facilities negatively impact those living along the fence lines, degrade surrounding water and air quality, or unfairly burden historically disadvantaged communities? Luu agrees that these considerations must be taken into account when evaluating investments. “Diligence at the project level is non-negotiable,” Luu said in response, pointing to the need to understand local watersheds, the historical context of the region, and the potential social impacts and benefits on the surrounding community. She also touched on the possibility of developing localized supply chains that could benefit communities. “If we are diligent to scale the technology solutions that are both safe and circular and allow us to decarbonized our plastics economy,” she said, there is the potential to build “more resilient and local plastics economies.”

Looking Towards the Future

The conversation touched on recent failures of advanced recycling projects. Luu stated that when the solar industry scaled, there were failures along the way, but the advanced recycling sector is under a unique amount of pressure to get things right and to do it soon. “I think failure is a part of any sector’s development and growth,” Luu said, especially given some of the really challenging materials that these technologies are working to address. She expects further failures, but is optimistic that there will also be wins, especially if stakeholders are diligent about scaling the best-in-class solutions.

When asked what she found most promising from all of her research into this sector, Luu pointed to the applications of these technologies beyond the current scope. Single-use packaging is a critical challenge to address, but these technologies can take on that challenge while also solving for the next ones: tackling textiles, durable plastic goods, and waste electronics. “I’m excited by the support to improve and evolve these technology processes in the market beyond packaging,” she said, pointing to collaborations and partnerships working to close the loop on plastics.

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