Chemical recycling of plastic waste has significant potential to scale up but much more investment is needed, according to a new study from Closed Loop Partners.
The April 9 report from New York-based CLP said that with less than 10 percent of waste plastic from consumer packaging and products actually recovered for recycling, there are major opportunities for technologies like depolymerization.
But CLP cautioned that the work may not be moving quickly enough to keep up with the growth of plastics waste and marine litter as global demand for plastics is expected to triple by 2050.
The problem is particularly acute for chemical technologies that convert waste into new polymers.
CLP aims for its report to be a road map for potential investors and said it surveyed more than 60 companies working in the emerging sector.
"More than 40 of these solution providers are operating commercial-scale plants in the U.S. and Canada today, or have plans to do so within the next two years," CLP said. "But of the technology providers surveyed, it has taken them 17 years on average to reach growth scale. That's not fast enough."
"More investment is needed now to accelerate these solutions — to go from 'possible' to 'probable,'" according to a statement from Ellen Martin, vice president of impact and strategic initiatives at CLP, and Kate Daly, executive director of CLP's Center for the Circular Economy.
CLP said the current infrastructure for traditional mechanical recycling is not enough to support the publicly announced demands for recycled content plastics from brand owners like Coca-Cola Co. and Danone. It suggested that chemical recycling technologies — which break down plastic into components and monomers to be rebuilt into fuels, chemicals and plastics — could help fill that gap.
It said the supply of recycled plastic would need to increase between 200 and 300 percent by 2030 to meet that demand, estimated at between 5 million and 7.5 million metric tons.
On the positive side, the report said there is a noticeable uptick in the pace of research and "clear momentum" emerging around scaling up the technologies. It noted investment by resin producers, including the $1.5 billion Alliance to End Plastic Waste.
But it also said that commercialization around converting waste plastics into fuels or other chemicals is much further along and is currently more profitable, compared with taking it back into new plastics. It identified 14 companies working on that and said returns in the plastics-to-plastics sector are "highly variable."
"Today, the business case is stronger for providers producing petrochemicals and fuels, with consistently positive margins," the report said.
"These investments represent the first wave of opportunities, but not the only ones. The 14 providers in the landscape that are producing polymers have less track record and a longer time horizon to scale."