It’s an undeniably compelling notion: Take waste plastics of all types and turn them back into the building blocks for new plastics, indistinguishable from the same molecules made from petroleum and natural gas. And not just with consumer packaging but also such hard-to-recycle items as shrink wrap, agricultural plastics, carpeting, building materials, synthetic textiles, even those multi-layer Franken-materials made from seemingly inseparable sheets of plastics, foils, paperboard and other components.
Waste into materials, not just once but continuously: It’s the brass ring of the circular economy.
And, of course, as with most things in sustainability, it’s not that simple.
Welcome to the promise of a suite of technologies known as advanced recycling — but also as chemical recycling, molecular recycling and several other things. The plethora of monikers begins to frame the complexities that confront the plastics industry and its customers as it tries to address the plastic waste crisis, the climate crisis, environmental justice and more.
To meet the demands of the hundreds of companies committed to eliminating plastic packaging going into landfills or incineration, the plastics industry has embraced advanced recycling in a big way. Large chemical companies are teaming with brands and technology innovators in the quest to make plastics that are endlessly recyclable. Policymakers are grappling with how to spur innovation, protect the public and the environment, and support the growth of the infrastructure advanced recycling needs to flourish.
And activists are looking at all this with a jaundiced eye and asking whether advanced recycling will actually have a net benefit for people and the planet.
Let’s start with a brief, not-too-technical explanation.
What is Advanced recycling
Mechanical recycling, the process used by most municipal recycling systems for grinding and reconstituting waste plastics, has its limits. While it is reasonably efficient and cost-effective, it requires a clean stream of same-type plastics — primarily PET, used in water bottles, and HDPE, from milk jugs — and doesn’t deal well with food contamination, other types of plastics or the presence of pretty much any other foreign substance; contaminated plastics usually end up in landfills or incinerators. Mechanical recycling can be used for many polymer types but is constrained by the inability of most collection systems to amass sufficiently large quantities of most plastics.
Enter advanced recycling, a suite of more than 100 technologies that break down polymers through such processes as pyrolysis (using heat), solvolysis (using solvents), enzymolysis (using enzymes ), dissolution (another solvent-based process) and gasification (converting plastic waste into synthetic gas, an intermediate feedstock for the production of plastics).
The product of most of these processes becomes the ingredients of new plastics, although several technologies turn plastic waste into fuels and energy, sometimes through incineration. That has alarmed environmentalists, who see waste-to-fuels and incineration as problematic — in part because they say it can release toxic chemicals into the environment, harming poorer communities that typically surround recycling plants, but mostly because it sends plastics’ valuable hydrocarbons up in smoke as opposed to continuously cycling them into new materials.
Advanced recycling "can help us recycle a lot more than the 90 percent of plastics that aren't recycled right now, especially the harder-to-recycle plastics," Craig Cookson, senior director of plastics sustainability at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), told me. "Those can go into virgin-equivalent plastics and chemicals that can be used in food and pharmaceutical and medical contact applications." Cookson added that incineration should not be seen as part of advanced recycling: "We want to totally separate that out, because that's not what these advanced recycling technologies do."
Still, advanced and chemical recycling have become dirty words among some environmental activists, who often conflate (or perhaps confuse) the waste-to-fuels and incineration processes with the growing waste-to-materials marketplace, dismissing the entire suite of advanced recycling technologies as chemical industry greenwash.
Credits: Nova Institut
Some of this is of the industry’s own making. For years, it lumped waste-to-fuel, waste-to-materials and incineration under the "chemical recycling" umbrella. That led to critical reports such as this one from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), published earlier this year, subtitled "'Chemical recycling' of plastic is just greenwashing incineration." Or this 2020 report from Greenpeace, which accuses plastics manufacturers and the American Chemistry Council of misleading investors, governments and the public with "the fantasy of chemical recycling."
The activists have done some muddling of their own. For example, the Greenpeace report accurately states that "the industry has often attempted to conflate waste-to-fuel/plastic-to-fuel and plastic-to-plastic under the respective umbrellas of ‘chemical recycling’ and ‘advanced recycling.’" But the report itself continues to conflate these things. It takes a careful reading to find the place in the report where it commends waste-to-materials processes, although it quickly notes that none of the projects it looked at "are likely to actually recycle plastic."
Yet another report from the grassroots-based Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, assumes that chemical recycling is primarily about burning plastics for energy. It similarly accuses the plastics industry of conflating waste-to-plastic and waste-to-fuel technologies, acknowledging that the former "truly qualifies as recycling" — just before the authors themselves conflate the two technologies by lambasting incineration’s toxic releases, carbon footprint and other challenges.
Its sweeping conclusion: Chemical recycling "does not fit in a circular economy."
The activists would be encouraged to take another look. The processes used by waste-to-materials companies have improved and are ramping up, with significant potential to create long-hoped-for circular models for plastics, including the stuff that previously hadn’t been easily recycled. Incineration isn't part of the mix.
Plastic to plastic
Consider Eastman, a company I wrote about in 2020 that has been turning waste polyester — from discarded carpeting, among other things — back into monomers to make new polyester materials, and says it can do so endlessly. Back in 2020, when I visited Eastman’s Kingsport, Tennessee, headquarters, the old-line chemical company referred to the process as "chemical recycling”. Today, they’re calling it "molecular recycling", no doubt in part to distinguish it from that stigma that’s become attached to chemical recycling.
Eastman uses a process called methanolysis, using methanol to enable a variety of low-value waste polyesters to be unzipped back into their constituent monomers. The company then turns them into new plastics for durable goods, from Warby Parker eyeglasses to Camelbak water bottles to apparel for the Swedish retail chain H&M. Since I visited Kingsport 28 months ago, the company has announced two new methanolysis plants, including one in France.
"We’re making great progress," Mark Costa, Eastman’s CEO, told me recently. "We've gone from one to three plants. We’re making sure we've got a clear line of sight on feedstock, and we're working really well with the mechanical recyclers and learning how to partner with them."
That last part is significant. Costa and others I spoke with took pains to point out that molecular recycling is a complement to mechanical recycling. "We want them to take all of the clear bottles and recycle them back into plastics, mechanically," Costa explained. "But their economics are limited to what they can sell into food-grade markets, because everything else is of pretty minimal value. We can take what they're currently downcycling into park benches and other things and put it into our process. So, you can solve the total stream problem when you put the two technologies together. That provides more revenue for the recyclers to add capacity so it becomes a virtuous ecosystem."
Eastman commissioned the consultancy Quantis to conduct a cradle-to-gate life-cycle assessment to compare the environmental footprint of plastics made via methanolysis with conventionally produced fossil-based polymers of the same type. The third-party-reviewed study concluded that Eastman’s methanolysis technology has a 29 percent lower global warming potential than its fossil-based equivalent and is ranked "significantly better" on 13 of the 14 environmental impact indicators studied.
That doesn’t include "any benefits that might come from avoided landfill or incineration," Costa said. Moreover, because methanolysis is a much simpler process, "You can start using green electricity and green steam in order to be much more efficient in your process." For example, thanks to a low-carbon grid, the carbon footprint of the new French plant, he said, "could be up to 80 percent lower than the fossil-fuel process."
The economics could be significant, too. Eastman forecasts more than $450 million in net earnings (EBITDA) from molecular recycling by 2025, according to a presentation during the company's 2021 Investor Day. For reference, the company's EBITDA for fiscal year 2022 was about $2 billion.
Eastman is just one legacy chemical company making sizable bets on advanced recycling. Most of the majors — including BASF , Chevron Phillips Chemical , ExxonMobil Chemical , LyondellBasell and Sabic — have announced new facilities and collaborations to turn plastic waste into virgin-quality polymers.
Another is Dow, the 125-year-old chemical giant, which has reinvented itself over the past decade as a materials science company. Over the past year, Dow has formed a number of partnerships to help it reach its advanced recycling ambitions. In July alone, it announced a partnership with London-based Mura Technology, to build advanced recycling facilities in the United States and Europe to turn plastic waste into recycled feedstock to make new, "virgin-grade" plastics. It announced a collaboration with Valoregen, a French recycling company, to bring together mechanical and advanced recycling into a single facility capable of recycling all forms of plastic waste. And it signed a letter of intent with Atlanta-based Nexus Circular to create what it calls a circular ecosystem in a newly constructed advanced recycling facility in Dallas.
"We have over 50 different circularity projects and partnerships in the works," Haley Lowry, Dow’s global sustainability director, told me. According to Manav Lahoti, its global sustainability director for hydrocarbons, the company maintains a database of more than 150 recycling-related technologies, which it is continually vetting and reprioritizing.
Like Eastman, Dow doesn’t view its processes as a replacement for mechanical recycling. "We see mechanical recycling as complementary to our overall circularity strategy," Lowry said. "We want the waste going into these advanced recycling processes to be waste that can't be handled today." The company has a target of enabling 1 million metric tons of plastic to be collected, reused or recycled through its direct actions and partnerships by 2030, and to enable 100 percent of its products sold into packaging applications to be reusable or recyclable by 2035.
"You'll see in the next several months some more announcements from us in terms of how the Mura technology starts benefiting from integrating into our manufacturing processes not only from a safety and compliance standpoint but also from a carbon standpoint," Lahoti said. "You will see the carbon footprint of that integration being significantly lower than anything else that's out there."
All of this is expected to become big business for Dow. "Circularity represents a $5 billion market opportunity for us," Lowry explained. "This is our growth strategy and where we are expecting to differentiate from others in the industry. It's what our customers are asking for. It's what the brands are demanding."
The market pull Dow, Eastman and others are seeing is just ramping up. By 2030, "up to almost one-third of plastics demands could be covered by production based on previously used plastics rather than from ‘virgin’ oil and gas feedstocks," according to a report by McKinsey & Co. By 2050, it said, that number could roughly double to "nearly 60 percent." But getting there "will require achieving an alignment of regulators and supporting conduct from major user industries such as consumer goods and automotive — and not least support from society more generally that relies on plastics daily."
Just say no
Getting that alignment may be challenging. Advanced recycling hasn’t seemed to impress activists or nudged them away from lumping waste-to-material technologies with those involving waste-to-fuels and incineration. My recent conversations with both Greenpeace and NRDC on the topic elicited very little enthusiasm or support for advanced recycling technologies or for the large chemical companies that historically have been the nemesis of many environmentalists.
One reason for the lack of enthusiasm is that the activists seem to be focusing primarily on consumer plastics: coffee cups, water and soda bottles and multi-material packaging, notably the sachets of personal and household cleaning products that litter sidewalks and waterways in many developing economies. But the activists don’t seem to account for what to do with the non-consumer stuff: the tons of used carpeting, medical plastics, synthetic textiles, plastic strapping, institutional packaging and myriad other plastics used in industry, construction and other sectors. Or what to do with the mixed plastics that are currently beyond the ability of most municipal recycling systems to process.
That misalignment of perspectives is a critical element of their resistance to embracing or even acknowledging the potential for advanced recycling.
"The world is moving away from the kinds of plastic packaging that we will be building these facilities to deal with," said John Hocevar, who runs Greenpeace’s ocean campaign and its focus on marine plastics. "So, between the U.N. and efforts at state and national levels, we're going to ban a lot of these throwaway plastic items. In the meantime, it just seems like somewhere between misdirection and a waste of money." Hocevar’s focus, however, is on single-use consumer plastics that have become a scourge on both land and sea. For him, advanced recycling takes a back seat to reuse, refill and package-free approaches — "definitely the gold standard for us," he told me. Hocevar commended Unilever and Nestle for "starting to engage in conversations about what it would take to remove the barriers to scaling up reuse. I think that's an important conversation for us all to be having right now."
He said that for advanced recycling to be viable, it would need to "demonstrate that it made sense from a climate perspective, a toxic perspective and an economic perspective." But he’s skeptical: "I just don't see all those things coming together."
Veena Singla, a senior scientist in NRDC’s Healthy People & Thriving Communities program, had her own criteria for what an acceptable advanced recycling system might look like. Among her questions: "What are the plastic inputs that are suitable for each particular process? Where do they come from? How do they get there? What does the process itself entail? What are the emissions and byproducts of that process? And what is produced and how can it be used?" Singla’s focus is on toxics. "What I'm concerned about are the toxic inputs, hazardous waste byproducts, hazardous air pollution and other emissions that are generated as a result of a process, and then when the outputs may or may not be used to make new plastic." She believes companies should be asking, "Are nontoxic materials safe and sustainable by design?" That means eliminating known chemicals of concern from plastics and not replacing them with "regrettable substitutions," as she put it.
"We need to be thinking with green chemistry principles and designing for recycling and reuse, and choosing our materials and substances with those principles in mind. It can feed into these clean cycles and is designed for recycling, reuse recovery," she said.
In other words: We should focus on recycling "good" plastics made with benign ingredients.
Oughta be a law
For advanced recyclers, the activist pushback may be less problematic than the patchwork quilt of enabling regulations that could hinder the industry's ability to go further, faster.
"We need regulatory certainty that can give confidence to the industry and to companies like ours to continue to heavily invest and really scale this," Dow’s Lowry said. "We need that acceptance of advanced recycling and mass balance."
"There's 9,000 communities across the United States recycling in 9,000 different ways," ACC’s Cookson explained. "How do we better knit the country together similar to how Eisenhower knit the country together with the Interstate Highway System, creating national standards around education, and data and contamination standards? That way, we can really grow this at the national level."
So far, 20 U.S. states have passed legislation to ensure that advanced recycling is regulated as manufacturing, said Cookson, which "provides regulatory transparency. We'd like to see the same types of rules and regulations nationally, so our companies have that certainty and confidence to invest here in the U.S."
Educating regulators and legislators — and countering what are perceived to be misleading arguments by activists — is a growing challenge. "From a policy point of view, there's a tendency to say, ‘Well, if I don't like one technology — and they highlight pyrolysis — then all of these technologies must be bad,’" Eastman’s Mark Costa said. He calls for "a principles-based approach to what is considered recycled content, instead of just trying to name technologies."
A new California mandate may help. Signed into law June 30, it mandates that the state recycle at least 30 percent of single-use packaging and plastic food utensils and containers by 2028, rising to 65 percent by 2032. Perhaps more important, it states that "recycling is not limited to the processing of materials that would otherwise become solid waste, but also includes processes applied to nonhazardous materials that have value principally as a feedstock for that processing, regardless of whether the materials have been discarded or constitute solid waste," according to the bill’s abstract .
Meanwhile, in Europe, whose plastic recycling rate is already three times that of the United States, a European packaging waste directive mandates that at least 65 percent (by weight) of all packaging waste be recycled by the end of 2025. A European Union-focused Circular Plastics Alliance aims to boost the European demand for recycled plastic to 10 million metric tons by 2025.
Such measures should be good news for the advanced recycling industry.
"All we can do is keep advocating," Costa told me. "It's like energy — you’ve got to have an all-of-the-above solution. And when you try and lock in on just a few things that you like, the odds of you actually solving the totality of this problem on a global scale is really low. All of it needs to be done or we're not going to get to where we need to be."
Image: Martijn Baudoin (Unsplash)