Nearly every aspect of our lives involves plastic, the benefits of which are so firmly ingrained into our daily routine that we sometimes take them for granted. Due to its lightweight nature and ability to provide an effective and durable barrier to air, moisture and bacteria, plastics are utilized in a wide range of industries, from medicine and food storage to transportation and building materials. It’s not hyperbole to say that, without them, our modern world would collapse.

However, while the benefits of plastics are abundant, they do come with an associated environmental cost. There are currently more than 150 million tons of plastic waste in the world’s oceans, and some data suggest the total weight of plastics found in all the oceans could surpass the total weight of all ocean-going fish by 2050. Additionally, according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 95% of plastic packaging material value — the largest application of plastics worldwide — is lost to the economy after its first use, while only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling.

Fortunately, while the potential environmental impact of plastics is troubling, the chemical industry is focused on creating long-term, sustainable solutions to maximize the benefits of plastics while reducing their environmental impact. This change is a significant driver in the development of new production facilities relying on chemically recycled feedstock. Those in the chemical industry who lead the way by investing in advanced recycling projects stand to gain large returns by improving the circular economy of plastics, or the practice of repurposing plastic materials after use.

Making a Change

Because their benefits are so vast and their use so embedded in modern society, eliminating plastics or switching to currently available plastic alternatives are not an appropriate solution. Thus, the industry must maximize the benefits of plastic while working to reduce the environmental cost by strengthening the cyclical economy of plastic production. Today, many organizations in the chemical industry, such as those involved in the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division, are focused on doing just that. Through a three-part initiative, the council plans to deploy updated systems that reuse, recycle or recover 100% of plastic packaging by 2040. This will only be possible through the use of advanced recycling methods.

Mechanical vs Advanced Recycling

When most people think of recycling plastics, they picture mechanical recycling. In mechanical recycling, plastics are crushed, remelted, mixed with new plastics and turned into new products. There are certain restrictions regarding how mechanically recycled products may be used — and, adversely, not many materials used in plastic packaging can be successfully recycled through mechanical means.

On the other hand, advanced recycling, also known as chemical recycling, uses existing and emerging technologies to break post-use plastics down into their basic chemical building blocks. This allows for a much more versatile mix of new products from chemically recycled material as compared to mechanically recycled material.

According to the American Chemistry Council, the use of advanced recycling methods furthers the circular economy of plastics, which positively impacts environmental concerns and makes it possible to invest in the development of new products. Demand for plastics will continue to increase as the world population increases, making investment in advanced recycling facilities all the more enticing. As a 2020 study by Closed Loop Partners shows, advanced recycling technologies “could meet an addressable market with potential revenue opportunities of $120 billion in the United States and Canada alone.”

Stimulating the Economy

To continue providing the world with more environmentally sound plastic goods and the incredible benefits that accompany them, the chemical industry is incentivized to build a more robust circular economy. Investing in advanced recycling projects early means organizations will be able to capitalize on the high demand for products made possible by advanced recycling methods.

As the U.S. government continues to discuss the development of an economic stimulus package in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — and should green initiatives become part of the conversation — it may be possible for some organizations in the chemical industry to procure funding for investment in such facilities. Organizations that do will have the ability to continue delivering products while meeting public demand for more environmentally friendly plastics.


The chemicals industry has an opportunity to instill long-term sustainable projects that promote a circular economy of plastics and result in significant environmental and economic benefits.

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Jimmy Becker is a mechanical engineer at Burns & McDonnell, focused on identifying and executing innovative project solutions in the chemical industry.