Seattle — Uncertainty surrounding chemical recycling continues to hold back broad-based investments, according to one group close to the action.
Closed Loop Partners is an investment and innovation firm that has become a high-profile backer in recent years of projects and services aimed at creating a circular economy. Along with making investments, Closed Loop has studied the emerging chemical recycling market for plastics, which is sometimes called molecular recycling or advanced recycling.
Closed Loop has made investments in the chemical recycling business, Managing Director Bridget Croke said, but added there is no one single way to achieve success.
"There is no silver bullet. There is not just one way we are going to get to the goals," she said at a recent U.S. Department of Energy workshop examining the circular economy for plastics held in Seattle.
"There's no one new cool technology that's going to solve this challenge for us. We still need mechanical recycling. We still need source reduction. We still need reuse. So we're looking at all that. And [chemical recycling] is just one addition, one piece of the puzzle that's going to help us achieve those goals," Croke said.
Chemical recycling, she said, is a "pretty charged topic" these days with varied opinions. Some nongovernmental organizations are absolutely opposed to that approach, while some companies are on the approach as of their environmental strategy. And then there are policymakers that sit somewhere in between.
Chemical recycling should not be considered a single approach, Croke told the workshop crowd. Instead, there are a variety of technologies that fall under the broad description.
"There is not a single category. This is whole bunch of different categories, and some of these technologies are going to scale faster than others. So if you say this works or this doesn't work, you can't talk about the whole category," she said.
Some technologies use solvents to purify recycled resin, stripping away additives and impurities, while maintaining the plastic. Other technologies use heat and pressure to transform plastics back into their molecular components to create an oil that can be used as fuel or to create new plastics. There's also work with enzymes and sound waves, according to Closed Loop.
"The key takeaways are that this is something that we need as part of a broader portfolio of solutions. And we think there's a lot of opportunities. We certainly can't solve for textiles [with traditional recycling]. We can't solve for medical waste and a lot of other industries without this," Croke said.
"I think we've potentially been focusing a little bit too much on single-use packaging with this category of technologies without thinking about some of those other industries," she said.
Make no mistake, there have been plenty of companies spending large amounts of money in chemical recycling — think PureCycle Technologies Inc. and Eastman Chemical Co., just to name two — but the broader investment community is waiting for uncertainties surrounding the industry to shake out.
"We're in the middle of the mush right now with all of this," Croke said, as technologies evolve and regulators take aim.
Closed Loop has published a report that takes a deep dive into the factors surrounding chemical recycling.
"What we're seeing is that because of all these headwinds and tailwinds, investors are still sitting back. I think there's a lot of interest, but the dollars aren't quite being deployed yet. We're going to need to prove that there are long-term off-take agreements that aren't going to have significant regulatory risks before the bigger dollars come in," she said.
Transforming to a Sustainable Circular Economy for Plastics Workshop was put on by DOE's Bioenergy Technologies Office and the Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office.