We have pledged to achieve a circular economy for plastic packaging so that 100 percent of used plastic packaging in the U.S. will be repurposed into new, valuable products by 2040. This will require recovering plastic packaging and expanding traditional and emerging technologies that repurpose plastics into multiple valuable products.
Traditional Ways to Repurpose Plastic Packaging
Once recovered and sorted, used plastic packaging typically has been mechanically processed/recycled: cleaned, heated, and formed back into resin pellets (the basic plastic raw material). This recycled material is then reused to make new plastic products, parts, and packaging.
America’s Plastic Makers have invested billions of dollars over the past few decades in establishing and expanding the infrastructure for mechanical recycling. Plastics recycling has grown nearly every year since we began tracking progress in the 1990s, and it’s now easier than ever to choose packaging and products made with recycled plastics, even those made with ocean plastics. We will continue to support efforts to optimize and expand mechanical recycling.
Emerging Ways to Repurpose Plastic Packaging: Advanced Recycling and Recovery
Beyond mechanical recycling, innovative technologies today also can convert/repurpose plastics into multiple additional products, such as industrial chemicals/products, transportation fuels, and even raw materials to create new plastics.
Advancing technologies can break down plastics into their molecular building blocks to be repurposed into various valuable materials. These technologies can significantly expand the markets for used plastics both in the U.S. and globally, which will help keep plastics out of the environment and in productive use.
Multiple business ventures can “chemically” recycle plastics to create new products. A few publicized examples (this is not an exhaustive list) include:
- An Agilyx facility in Tigard, OR. chemically recycles used polystyrene packaging into its raw material: styrene. Americas Styrenics will use that recycled styrene to make polystyrene for use in multiple new products, including foodservice ware, creating a circular loop.
- Eastman can break down used polyester into its building blocks to make new polyester for food packaging and other products.
- UK-based Plastic Energy produces a feedstock (known as TACOIL) derived from mixed plastics that typically are not recycled. SABIC processes this feedstock into new plastics for Unilever, Tupperware, and other customers who create consumer packaging for food, beverage, personal, and home-care products. This packaging, in turn, could be recovered and repurposed again and again.
- 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 United and Delta airlines have announced ventures to produce fuels from used plastics.
The opportunities presented by these emerging technologies is enormous, both environmentally and economically. Aside from reducing plastic waste, recovering and repurposing plastics can lessen negative impacts on the environment broadly. For example, compared to conventional diesel, a 2017 study from Argonne National Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy found that making fuel from used plastics would decrease energy use by a massive 96 percent.
On the economic front, a 2019 report by the Closed Loop Partners (CLP), an organization that invests in the development of the circular economy, found there is tremendous demand for the products of these emerging technologies. CLP: “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 (emphasis added).” CLP identified 60 technology providers with significant potential for growth, along with 250 investors and strategic partners engaged with them.
To help promote and expand these emerging technologies, we have created the Chemical Recycling Alliance, comprised of companies engaged in the business of creating new products from used plastics. Among other efforts, the Alliance invests in precompetitive research to help create additional products from used plastics and support the associated environmental and economic opportunities.
Business As Usual Is Not Sustainable
An estimated 8 million tons of plastic enters our ocean each year. This must stop.