In a recent opinion piece titled “Dear Plastics Industry: We are Headed for a Divorce,” Kate Bailey, Eco-Cycle policy and research director, laid out real frustrations about the disconnect between the plastics industry and the recycling industry, which has been creating new value out of discarded plastic items for decades. However, there are a few points made that need more context and clarity. Those companies in the mechanical recycling value chain are owed the credit for giving plastics a positive end-of-life story, and it is the reality that many of these recyclers have suffered in the downturn with China.
When I read the article, I actually found myself getting excited because a number of the opportunities outlined in the op-ed are areas where the plastics industry already has made significant investment and commitments:
• Buy back products and increase recycled content.
We have seen a change in brand owner commitment to using recycled content. Nearly every major consumer packaged goods (CPG) company has publicly committed to aggressively increasing percentages of recycled content in packaging. This has been well documented by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. Retailers like Walmart and Target have joined the effort to drive recycled content in their products, as have durable goods manufacturers, like Ford and GM, that are striving to use recycled content in vehicles. The pull through for recycling content is materializing at an astonishing rate.
• Recommit to collecting Nos. 1 and 2 bottles.
Companies are also working to advance the collection of packaging by funding efforts like The Recycling Partnership, which is showing what success at scale looks like to improve the quantity and quality of recyclables. In fact, there is currently not enough supply of food-contact post-consumer resin (PCR) available to meet the ever-growing targets of major CPGs, so companies are forced to look at a wider range of technologies that will be able to supply food-grade quality materials. That includes chemical recycling technologies, like the one being commercialized by Loop Industries, which will support the growth of bottle-to-bottle recycling. Chemical recycling is another way of enabling bottle-to-bottle recycling from bottles that might not otherwise be eligible for food contact. Chemical recycling is not a distraction—like mechanical recycling, it can help us create small loops of circularity, returning a material back into a similar product, or very big circles, making polymers available for entirely new applications and opportunities. Economics will help us determine the most efficient pathways for moving materials, and any technology that enables circularity in an environmentally efficient way should be considered an option.
• Scale up polypropylene (PP) market development.
Industry-funded efforts to do just that are in play in both the U.S. and Europe. LyondellBasell, a supplier of prime PP, has made investments in Europe in both Suez and Quality Circular Polymers (QCP). These investments afford LyondellBasell the vertical integration opportunity with assured supply and quality that will enable that company to offer recycled-content grades to its customers. Making shopping for recycled content as easy as shopping for prime resin is now a goal of most resin suppliers. This is perhaps the best example of how prime resin suppliers are helping to entirely shift the ecology of the plastics industry, and there is plenty of room for mechanical recyclers to participate in that.
And domestically, the much-anticipated PureCycle technology is coming online this year, which will transform how and where post-consumer recycled (PCR) PP can be used. This is a technology that comes to market with the backing of Procter & Gamble. This is a solvent extraction technology, not full chemical recycling. I expect we will see a whole spectrum of technologies, including chromatography, being used to create value from streams of plastics once cast aside.
As the industry continues to move to integrate recycled content into its portfolio throughout the supply chain, there will be a place for all forms of plastics recycling technologies.
With chemical recycling in the news as of late, there may be concern about why the industry is looking at these technologies as options, as Bailey’s column suggests. But mechanical recycling clearly has its limitations. Colorants, additives and heat histories all limit the potential end markets for PCR or the amount of PCR that can be used to displace virgin resin in a given application. This could have been a large contributing factor to why demand for PCR remained stagnantly low for the past decade. It has been the dawn of these new recycling technologies—like chemical recycling—that has the potential to vastly expand the horizons of PCR usage in all applications.
Chemical recycling also will make recovery of difficult-to-recycle materials, like multilayer products, possible. We should not stop advancing packaging forms that offer sustainability benefits upstream, particularly those that help companies reach greenhouse gas reduction goals. Practically, we cannot limit the universe of packaging to rigid Nos. 1 and 2. Instead of stifling packaging designs that bring significant environmental benefits based on lifecycle analysis, doesn’t it make more sense to embrace an expanding range of technologies to create value from our existing waste streams?
We are at a very exciting moment in time, where I believe the plasitcs industry is leading on many of these opportunities. And with emerging technologies and the expansion of our mechanical recycling capacity and capability, we will see the delta between the available supply of PCR and quality requirements of the industry narrow. The result is that both plastics and recycling industries are charting a practical roadmap of strategies and investments to make PCR a pillar of manufacturing at every level of the supply chain—and doing so together, to each industry’s mutual benefit.
Kim Holmes is vice president of sustainability for the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS). She leads the sustainability team, which provides support for all sustainability- and recycling-related work undertaken by the councils and committees at PLASTICS. The association is committed to maximizing the recovery of all plastics, both post-industrial and post-consumer, across all product categories.