Technology

Advanced Plastics Recycling

Keeping plastics in productive use and out of the environment.

MAY 7, 2020 - Most of us are familiar with mechanical recycling (or traditional recycling). Once collected and sorted, used plastic packaging is typically cleaned, heated and formed into resin pellets (a basic plastic raw material). These recycled pellets are then used to make new plastic products, parts and packaging.

Beyond mechanical processing, innovative technologies can break down plastics into their molecular building blocks to be repurposed into various valuable materials, including brand new plastics. Advanced recycling (sometimes referred to as chemical recycling) typically alters the physical form of used plastics without burning, either by dissolving them or using heat to break them down into their original components. These raw material “building blocks” are repurposed to make a wide variety of products, such as new plastics, industrial chemicals/products and transportation fuels.

Why is this exciting? Because advanced recycling eventually could allow many plastic products to become new products again, helping to keep plastics out of the environment.

Plus, the combination of optimizing the existing mechanical recycling system and expanding advanced plastics recycling will help achieve the goal of reusing, recycling or recovering 100 percent of used plastic packaging in the U.S. by 2040.

Businesses are starting to use advanced recycling technologies to create new products like the examples below: 

  • Plastic Energy produces a feedstock (known as TACOIL) derived from mixed plastics that typically are not recycled. The global company SABIC processes this feedstock into new plastics (“certified circular polymers”) for Unilever, Tupperware and other customers that create packaging for food, beverage, personal and home-care products. This packaging, in turn, could be recovered and repurposed again and again. 
  • Ineos Styrolution has partnered with two advanced recyclers, Agilyx and GreenMantra, to convert used polystyrene plastic into its original building blocks that then can be made into polystyrene again for use in multiple new products, creating a circular loop. The Agilyx process can even recycle polystyrene that was used to serve food into new polystyrene foodservice packaging. 
  • Renewlogy collects used plastics from multiple cities and creates valuable products such as naphtha that can be used to make brand new plastic, diesel and petrochemical products. 
  • Both Delta and United Airlines have announced ventures to produce fuels from used plastics. 

There is a huge market for the products of advanced recycling. A 2019 report by Closed Loop Partners (CLP), an organization that invests in the development of the circular economy, found there is tremendous demand for products made with these emerging technologies.

Our analysis indicates that these technologies could meet an addressable market with potential revenue opportunities of $120 billion — in the United States and Canada alone.
– CLOSED LOOP PARTNERS

Advanced plastic recycling technologies can significantly expand the markets for used plastics, both in the United States and globally, to help keep more plastics out of the environment and in productive use.

Glossary

Mechanical recycling:  A process by which waste materials are turned into raw materials without changing the basic structure of the material.

Advanced recycling:  Advanced plastics recycling, also called chemical recycling, refers to several different technologies that convert post-use plastics into their original building blocks, specialty polymers, feedstocks for new plastics, fuels, waxes, and other valuable products.

Feedstock:  Any raw material that can be used to supply or fuel an industrial process or a machine.

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