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September 28, 2022

The Role of Chemical Recycling in a Circular Economy

Natalia Scherbakoff, Global Technology & Innovation Director, Engineered Materials

In recent years, a fully enclosed miniature glass aquarium called the EcoSphere has become popular. People around the world place it as a decoration in their homes or offices. The most interesting feature of these aquariums is the tiny red shrimp swimming in them, feeding on the bacterial scum and filamentous green algae inside the enclosure.

test tubes

The concept is, in fact, a materially closed mini circular ecosystem, one that is self-sustaining for years. All it requires is room temperature, some light and the algae in the system to produce the oxygen that sustains both the shrimp and the bacteria. The latter break down the shrimps’ waste and those byproducts serve as nutrients for the algae and bacteria, then the shrimp feed on the algae and bacteria. The enormous version that exists in reality is the concept of a circular economy — returning waste to its original building blocks is one key process to making circularity a success.

What is chemical recycling?

Chemical recycling, also known as advanced recycling in the U.S., is the broad term used to describe a range of emerging technologies in the waste management industry that allow plastics to be recycled. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only 9% of plastic waste is recycled each year globally. In the U.S., just 5% to 6% of plastics were recycled in 2021.

When it comes to recycling, the most common method is mechanical recycling, which almost always ends up in downcycling or with a loss in value. Chemical recycling, on the other hand, breaks plastics down into raw materials, which enables upcycling. It essentially converts waste into something of equal or greater value.

Depolymerization is a chemical recycling process that breaks down plastics, such as polyester and polystyrene, for conversion back into new polymers. Pyrolysis turns plastic waste into naphtha, which can be used for plastics and petrochemicals.

Turning plastic waste back into base monomers and chemical feedstocks stands to dramatically improve recycling rates globally and reduce the alarming amount of plastic waste going into landfills or incinerators. Practical circular solutions like chemical recycling are the building blocks of a circular economy.

How does chemical recycling fit into the circular economy?

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “The circular economy is based on three principles, driven by design: eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials (at their highest value) and regenerate nature.” In a circular economy, waste is largely minimized, and the goods and resources are highly valued.

Chemical recycling adds value by converting previously unrecyclable plastic waste into petrochemical feedstock, which is used to produce virgin-quality polymers. The process offsets a circular value chain for plastic.

The technology is fueling cross-industry partnerships among manufacturers, retailers, brands and waste treatment and recycling plants. Collaboration between stakeholders further closes the loop by enabling innovation and securing plastic waste supply, and chemical recycling procedures bridge the gap between the waste management and petrochemical industries.

How does chemical recycling contribute to sustainability?

Over the past 30 years, the development of chemical recycling has thrown up a number of roadblocks. The process requires significant energy and is prone to technical difficulties. Chemical recycling is also challenging to scale to industrial levels. Added to the speed and scale needed to produce a positive impact, it’s reasonable to see why some believe chemical recycling might not be the most practical solution to plastic pollution. However, despite these limitations, the process is proving to be a powerful tool in the global fight against the release of plastic waste into the environment, particularly marine litter.

That accounts for why, in recent years, many chemical companies, some of which partner with the value chain, have started working on developing chemical recycling technologies, such as depolymerization. What is encouraging is that there are other chemical technologies that are able to turn plastic and biomass wastes into fuels.

For example, Yoplait, a leading yogurt manufacturer, identified that something could be done to make a difference in sustainability. Polystyrene makes up 70% of the company’s yogurt pots. According to Plastics Europe, “The chemical structure of polystyrene allows complete recyclability while maintaining performance properties that are important to the consumer, like being a food-safe protective container.” The solution was to utilize a recycling process to create depolymerized recycled polystyrene (rPS) from polystyrene waste. The resulting recycled product dramatically improves the environmental sustainability of the yogurt pot, and it is safe to use in other high-quality applications as well. (Disclaimer: Trinseo partnered with processor Intraplas and brand owner Yoplait to produce and supply recycled polystyrene yogurt containers for food contact applications with the launch of the first yogurt pot integrating rPS in France.)

What’s more, chemical recycling has a lower overall carbon footprint than end-of-life processes like landfills and incineration. According to a recent Quantis report commissioned by the European Chemical Industry Council, the chemical recycling, or pyrolysis, of mixed plastic trash produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than burning the same waste (page 5).

The OECD reports that “the amount of plastic waste produced globally is on track to almost triple by 2060, with around half ending up in landfill and less than a fifth recycled.” Emerging technologies like chemical recycling are vital to convert and reinvest plastic waste into the economy.

With all of this in mind, businesses have to realize that collaboration is of prime importance. Include good material partners who are dedicated to sustainability and innovations. Partnerships with converters, brand owners and basically everyone in the value chain are also important. The catalyst is a proper infrastructure that includes waste management and recycling so that plastic waste can be collected and recycled in a meaningful way.

Natalia Scherbakoff is a member of Forbes Technology Council. Get more insights from Scherbakoff’s thought leadership by reading her posts published on Forbes.com.

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