Replacing plastic with other materials is not practical. When considering all aspects of the product lifecycle, plastics have a much lower environmental cost than their alternative materials. So, while opportunities exist to reduce per capita plastic consumption, the solution to plastic waste must include the ongoing use of plastics for their superior material properties.
The current plastic recycling rate is approximately 10% in North America. McKinsey forecasts that plastic recycling could reach 50% by 2030 (at a $75/bbl crude price). The paper and aluminum industries already have demonstrated that this level of recycling is achievable. However, attaining 50% plastic recycling will require substantial investment in infrastructure to recover, sort, aggregate, and recycle plastic waste. Traditional recycling efforts rely on mechanical sorting. This approach is not effective for low quality, mixed plastic waste. The industry is responding with a myriad of new recycling technologies to 1) purify polymer waste for reuse, 2) chemically recycle plastic into monomers that are identical to virgin feedstocks, or 3) decompose plastic via pyrolysis or gasification into liquid fuel or synthesis gas.
Closed Loop Partners recently identified over sixty companies developing technology to purify, chemically recycle, or decompose plastic. And the list is growing. Chemical recycling and pyrolysis will augment mechanical sorting, not replace it. Recent decisions by countries like China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and India to curtail the import of plastic waste – while disruptive to domestic recycling in the short term – will only accelerate the development of infrastructure to handle plastic waste in North America.
Consumer goods companies are lining up to pledge more recycled content in their plastic packaging. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, P&G, and Walmart, just to name a few, have announced ambitious goals for 2025 and beyond. The problem is that there is not nearly enough recycled plastic to meet these goals. There is a huge chasm between the future aspirations and the current reality.
Bridging this gap by 2025 will require purposeful action. Technology needs to be selected, commercial offtake agreements negotiated, and facilities constructed. And remember that recycling is a local effort. It is not cost effective to transport plastic waste over long distances.
Chemical recycling or pyrolysis plants will need to be built locally and integrate their products with refineries or chemical plants. The American Chemistry Council estimates that hundreds of new facilities will need to be constructed in North America to recycle just 25% of the postconsumer recoverable plastics currently going into landfills.
The chemical industry alone cannot solve this problem. The solution will require cross-industry partnerships as well as collaboration with governments & NGOs. These partnerships are forming today. Waste services companies, chemical companies, consumer goods companies, and technology providers are making alliances now to meet this challenge. Industry coalitions such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste are essential to address the issue. Equally, collaboration with regulators, municipalities, and NGOs like The Recycling Partnership is an integral part of the answer.
Several difficult challenges lie ahead for plastic waste recycling:
- Scaling chemical recycling fast enough to meet goals for recycled content in plastics by 2025. Rapid investment will require mechanisms for the sharing of economic risks and benefits as well as forward thinking partnerships.
- Accessing sufficient quantities of plastic waste suitable for recycling. Municipalities and waste services companies are the gatekeepers for this resource. A supportive and consistent regulatory framework is needed to incent the necessary investments in waste recovery infrastructure.
- Developing an effective and efficient policy model to finance the necessary investments in recycling capacity. This model could entail some combination of Extended Producer Responsibility, landfill surcharges, taxes on single use plastic products, tax credits to encourage investment, bottle deposits, bag fees, or other mechanisms. An effective regulatory advocacy program is necessary to mitigate the risk of a fragmented approach by state or city.
- Developing an auditable program to match the input of recycled materials in the supply chain with the recycled content in finished products. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has outlined options for tracking recycled content in the supply chain and assigning recycled content to finished products. There are several possibilities for how to accomplish this including a mass balance approach or a program to book and trade certificates. Such programs already are in use for renewable electricity and biofuels. Under the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), the US EPA established a program that involves the creation of Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs) which can be produced and traded to enable individual companies to meet federal requirements for biofuel content in gasoline and diesel fuel. A certificate trading program would eliminate unnecessary transportation costs for recycled materials and promote the most efficient forms of recycling.
All of these challenges require proactive thinking and action to navigate successfully. Plastic waste recycling is a complex, cross-industry issue. Yet it can be solved. The winners in this transformation will be the companies that show foresight, choose their partners wisely, and act decisively.