In 2019, plastic makers in the U.S., Canada and Europe committed to the goal of reusing, recycling or recovering all plastic packaging in these regions by 2040. This commitment demands innovative solutions and advanced technologies as the world embraces a steady incline of plastic consumption.
The global demand for plastics has nearly doubled since 2000, according to the International Energy Agency. Most of that uptick stems from the growth of the middle class, the fastest growing segment of the global population, projected to reach 5.3 billion by 2030, according to the Brookings Institute. This increased standard of living drives demand for plastics and other products such as food, water, housing and transportation — a majority of which are made possible because of plastic materials.
With 90% of global plastic waste headed for the landfill, there is an opportunity to turn plastic waste into potential feedstock. Companies are now reinventing how we think of recycling to address sustainability goals and accelerate resource efficiency to meet a growing global population.
Some chemical recycling technology has been around since the 1950s and is only now starting to gain traction for a new purpose. Through gasification and pyrolysis, plastics are broken down into their basic chemicals, which are then used to make new materials. Advanced plastic recycling and recovery technologies push far beyond traditional recycling practices and have the potential to revolutionize the global production, use and reuse of plastics.
Gasification turns nonrecycled materials from solid waste into a synthesis gas, which can be used for electric power generation or converted into fuel or chemical feedstocks, such as ethanol and methanol, which can be used to make new plastics that go into consumer products. Pyrolysis, often referred to as plastics to fuel, turns nonrecycled plastics from solid waste into a synthetic crude oil that can be refined into diesel fuel, gasoline, heating oil or waxes.
Chemical recycling not only helps recover and repurpose a much broader range of post-use plastics, but it holds great promise for economic growth and job creation. A report by the American Chemistry Council found that the potential economic impact of expanding advanced plastic recycling and recovery technologies in the U.S. could be nearly $10 billion and result in 40,000 jobs. This would push as much as $2.2 billion in annual payroll and $9.9 billion in direct and indirect economic output.
With this potential, several major plastic makers and energy companies have announced investments or agreements with advanced plastic recycling and recovery technology providers. As these early adopters demonstrate and scale these processes, the commitment to recovering 100% of plastic packaging by 2040 becomes much more attainable.
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.