Austin, Texas — There's a rub within the plastics recycling industry these days regarding just what to call technology that returns waste plastics to their molecular form. These processes, including pyrolysis, methanolysis and glycolysis, are known as chemical recycling, advanced recycling or even molecular recycling, depending on who is speaking.
Joshua Baca, as vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council, spoke at the recent Packaging Conference in Austin about his group's preference to use the term "advanced recycling." But he also said there is a bigger picture that should not be lost amid the name debate.
"I think we should be less focused on the nomenclature, because if we are talking about nomenclature, then we are not addressing the problem," he said shortly after his presentation.
"One hundred percent of our focus is to ensure that we get more of the material that is recovered, reused or recycled. That is our goal," he said. "The problem today is much of the material goes to a landfill or ends up in an ocean or waterway. That's unacceptable," he said.
Regardless of what term is being advocated, he said, those behind the debate share the same goals: capturing and reusing more material. "We have a whole lot in common. We agree on a lot of stuff," he said.
Still, the rub exists. The Association of Plastic Recyclers, in particular, has been vocal about its preference for using the term "chemical recycling." APR's members tilt heavily toward "mechanical recycling," where plastics are processed but still retain their form as plastics throughout the recycling process.
Using the word "advanced" to describe these processes, APR believes, leaves the impression that they are somehow better than mechanical recycling, where plastics are typically ground, cleaned and remelted before reuse.
A chemical approach returns plastics to their constituent parts and allows those molecules to then be reused, including the manufacture of fuel. Pyrolysis uses heat and pressure in the absence of oxygen to achieve this and is maybe the most widely known. Methanolysis and glycolysis, meanwhile, use methanol and glycol in their processes to depolymerize what has been previously polymerized.
APR is against charactering any plastics-to-fuel process as recycling. Instead, the trade group believes the term "recycling" should be reserved for plastics-to-plastics efforts. APR and ACC's plastics division do agree on that particular point and prefer using "advanced recovery" when talking about fuel creation.
"There's a great role here for mechanical recycling. We are huge supporters of mechanical recycling and continue to make many investments and support policy to grow that. But we're really talking about the hard-to-recycle plastics," Baca said.
"The question is why do we call it 'advanced recycling,'" he asked the conference crowd.
"Virgin-quality plastic that can go into food, pharma and medical — that's advanced. The ability to take heterogeneous mix of material and recycle it — that's advanced. The ability to make sure we are extracting less natural resources from the ground — that's advanced," Baca said. "And transitioning an entire manufacturing industry to what has been traditionally linear to one that is circular — that is advanced.
"We're not in the business of saying that somehow advanced recycling is better than mechanical recycling. We're just defining what it is," he said.
Baca also explained to the audience why ACC wants to see some limited government action on the federal level to help create a unified approach to plastics recycling moving forward.
With thousands of governmental entities around the country overseeing recycling, different rules and regulations can create confusion. Developing some federal standards would help to level the playing field for recyclers as well as create unified expectations of the industry, he said.
"We're not advocating for a takeover of the system. We're advocating for a minimum set of standards to help our people do what they do a little bit better," he said.
"The incentive for innovators to grow needs to ensure that there is a level playing field with a set of minimum rules and regulations. … Today is sort of the wild, Wild West," he said.