Advanced plastics recycling and recovery through depolymerization technologies such as pyrolysis and chemical recycling is gaining steam and represents nearly a $10 billion annual potential, according to one trade group.
But the American Chemistry Council is under no illusion that things are going to change tomorrow or that burgeoning recycling techniques will ever replace existing mechanical recycling efforts that currently dominate.
Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for ACC, points to many high-profile companies that are investing in so-called advanced technology to find solutions that will help society deal with difficult-to-recycle plastics.
“I think we are at a pivotal moment where we are transitioning from proposal and pilot to program delivery and we see that not only in the number of announcements, but also in the profile of the names of companies that are making the announcements,” he said.
A new report from the ACC estimates claims of “advanced plastic recycling and recovery technologies” could be worth almost $10 billion in economic impact in the United States. The report looks at technologies that covert recovered plastics into products such as chemicals and chemical feedstocks.
But the ACC does say adoption of these types of technologies will take time.
“We're under no illusion that everything will turn around tomorrow. There are hurdles to overcome. There are models to refine, technologies to perfect, of course. But I do think we are close enough now that major corporate brands, industry groups like ourselves and others are increasingly comfortable making commitments and projections about what the future of waste management will be for plastics,” he said.
Mechanical recycling now dominates plastics recovery, but work continues on creating economically viable ways to chemically recycle the material. This type of recycling is certainly technically viable, but the struggle has been creating ways to actually make money using that approach.
Plastic recycling lags both paper and metal recycling in the United States due to the unique challenges of handling used resins and keeping them separate. Even small amounts of misplaced resin can cause huge problems in plastics recycling systems.
The report is called “Economic Impact of Advanced Plastics Recycling and Recovery Facilities in the U.S.” The study updates similar work done by the ACC in 2014.
ACC, Russell said, put down an “initial marker” five years ago to begin looking at the potential for the industry. “We thought it was a good idea to both revisit what we have done before and also open the aperture a little bit to include a range of potential outputs that the technology can deliver,” he said. “I think the value of the report is to supplement the big story, which is the investments being made.”
Mechanical and advanced recycling, moving forward, will serve to complement each other as the industry looks to recover more plastics, he said.
Of the $9.9 billion economic impact estimate, the ACC said $4.1 billion could come directly from operations and another $3.5 billion could come from indirect benefits of companies working with recycling firms. Finally, some $2.3 billion could be created through a “payroll-induced effect” or money spent by workers, both direct and indirect.