April 9, 2019 By Ellen Martin & Kate Daly
New Report Shows Tremendous Value to be Captured…. When We Stop Throwing Plastics in the Trash
The U.S. and Canada send over 34 million tons of plastics to landfills or incinerators each year. Following current trends, global plastics demand is forecasted to triple by 2050. And even more troubling, mismanaged waste leaks into our environment – there may be more plastics than fish (by weight) in our oceans by 2050.
But what if we could change that? What if we could use innovative technologies to purify, decompose, or convert waste plastics into the building blocks for renewed raw materials instead of discarding them after one use?
What if we could also reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuel extraction, reduce landfill disposal costs for municipalities, decrease marine pollution, and generate billions in new revenue?
Investors and brands have an opportunity to influence and accelerate transformational technology solutions that repurpose plastics waste and keep materials in play in circular supply chains.
There are at least 60 technology providers developing these transformational technologies that purify, decompose, or convert waste plastics into renewed raw materials. This report proposes accessible, shared language to use to define and talk about each of these processes going forward:
Purification involves dissolving plastic in a solvent, then separating and purifying the mixture to extract additives and dyes to ultimately obtain a “purified” plastic. Purification processes make it possible to safely transform carpet into yogurt cups — greatly increasing the value of plastics waste. PureCycle Technologies will do just that when it opens its Ohio facility in the next year.
Decomposition is a process that involves breaking molecular bonds of the plastic to recover the simple molecules (“monomers” or “intermediates”) from which the plastic is made. In other words, plastic doesn’t just have to go back to plastic – it can become a valuable raw material to be used again. Loop Industries decomposes PET into its monomers and, with its partners, aims to produce a Loop-branded recycled PET pellet.
Conversion is similar to decomposition in that the process involves breaking the molecular bonds of the plastic. A key difference is that the output products from conversion processes are often liquid or gaseous hydrocarbons similar to the products derived from petroleum refining. These raw materials may enter different supply chains, such as fuels for combustion, and/or petrochemicals that can be made into intermediates and monomers for new plastics. Agilyx, based in Oregon, uses both decomposition and conversion technologies that can produce a variety of products, including naphtha, jet fuel, synthetic crude oil and styrene monomer, depending on the feedstock.
Through these technologies, it’s possible to recycle plastic back into plastic, AND to create valuable upstream products that keep materials in play.
The technology is possible. The question now is: How fast and how far can we go?
Every sector of society is engaged in the broad challenges of climate change and the visible problem of plastics waste. Many of the world’s largest and most influential brands are taking ownership of the problem and looking at their own supply chains. The Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners is creating a roadmap for how to build on this momentum by unifying the diverse actors in this space and accelerating collaborative investment to bring solutions to scale.
Demand for plastics is strong and growing, yet the supply of recycled plastics available to meet demand is stuck at 6%. Options for recycling plastics today don’t capture the full opportunity: with current infrastructure, a small portion – less than 10% – of plastics waste from many consumer packages and products is recovered and recycled. Current mechanical processes and infrastructure aren’t enough to support the publicly stated goals of many global brands who have committed to use more recycled plastics in their products and packaging, or to achieve the zero waste goals of our major cities.
We surveyed more than 60 technology providers – broadly categorized as using one (or more) of three processes described above – nearly all of them at least at the lab stage of maturity, with significant potential to grow and scale. More than 40 of these solution providers are operating commercial scale plants in the U.S. and Canada today, or have plans to do so within the next two years.
But of the technology providers surveyed, it has taken them 17 years on average to reach growth scale. That’s not fast enough. More investment is needed now to accelerate these solutions – to go from “possible” to “probable”.
That’s why we are calling on investors, brands, and industry to join us in: investing to bring solutions to scale; increasing awareness of how these technologies apply to different supply chains and waste streams, including adopting the shared language from this research; and collaborating on partnerships with technology providers.
If these technologies are understood more broadly – and are more widely adopted and scaled – tremendous economic value can be realized. According to our analysis, if these technologies can meet market demands for plastics and petrochemicals, they have a potential addressable market of $120 billion ($47 billion for polymers) in the U.S. and Canada alone.
We need to stop thinking of plastics as waste, and start treating it as a resource. Until we do this, we are taking tons of value – and throwing it in the trash.
We hope you will take the time to read the full report: “Accelerating Circular Supply Chains for Plastics”. You can also see the overview of our key findings and recommendations for next steps here.
Join us: If you are interested in participating in our ongoing research, convening, and investment in this area, we encourage you to introduce yourself to the Center for the Circular Economy: [email protected].
We look forward to working together to accelerate solutions to plastics waste and circular supply chains.