Industry Case Study
Insights on companies on-the-ground
How Collaborations in the Molecular Recycling Space Can Drive Closed-Loop Plastics Supply Chains
In November 2021, Closed Loop Partners released its latest report on molecular recycling, Transitioning to a Circular System for Plastics: Assessing Molecular Recycling Technologies in the United States and Canada. As part of this study, our team released a series of case studies meant to highlight best practices and lessons learned from molecular recycling companies advancing these technologies on-the-ground.
Plastic Energy, SABIC, Sealed Air, Tesco and Bradburys Cheese join forces to build a closed loop system for plastic packaging, diverting waste from landfills and incineration
Achieving a 30% recycling rate across all plastic packaging in the U.S. and Canada by 2030 would require nearly 1 million metric tons of mixed plastic containers for recycling, 755,000 metric tons of polyethylene (PE) films, and about 300,000 metric tons of polypropylene (PP) containers. Currently, the recycling rate of PE film is at 11%, and the recycling rate of mixed plastics containers and packaging is even lower at 5% (1).
Leveraging molecular recycling technologies like conversion or purification, which can both process polyolefins waste (i.e. PP and PE resins), can divert mixed rigid plastics or mixed plastic films that are not suitable for mechanical recycling from landfill. While these materials today are minimally being collected and sorted, Closed Loop Partners’ supply chain analysis illustrates that integrating molecular recycling technologies into the existing plastics recycling system can add economic value to stakeholders across the collection and sortation value chain (see Deep Dive in XXX report on page XX in report).
Purification can process a subset of flexible films (i.e., PP and PE film); however, purer streams are usually required for processing. For the majority of complex films, including multilayer packaging (2), conversion is a better suited downstream solution since it is more amenable to today’s reality of mixed waste, and can fill in gaps in areas where collections and sortation infrastructure are limited (3). Conversion technology is one downstream solution to advance circular applications for recycled films, particularly for multilayer films. If these technologies help to meaningfully decarbonize the plastics industry and are aligned to circular incentives, they can play an important role in closing the loop on plastics that cannot be recycled (i.e. multilayer films) or converted to easier-to-recycle formats or reuse models.
Today, film and flexible plastics in particular, such as wrappers and multilayer films, are not easily recycled at the materials recovery facilities (MRF) because traditional recycling equipment is designed for rigid plastics and is challenged by sorting small, flat plastics; in addition, films and flexible plastics recycled mechanically typically have inferior properties compared to virgin materials which limits their end markets . Yet, packaging trends indicate a continuing shift away from rigid packaging towards flexibles and multilayer pouches, underscoring the need for upstream solutions like continued packaging design innovation and downstream solutions like advanced recycling that can process these packaging formats.
Plastic Energy’s Solution
For the past 10 years, Plastic Energy has been paving the way for the molecular plastics recycling sector with its patented Thermal Anaerobic Conversion technology. The company converts mixed post-consumer plastic waste into TACOIL, an alternative feedstock oil that is used in the creation of virgin-quality plastics for food-grade packaging. In 2020, Plastic Energy, SABIC and Sealed Air launched an industry-first closed-loop pilot project with UK supermarket chain, Tesco, and Bradburys Cheese. Flexible plastics returned by consumers to in-store collection points at Tesco supermarkets were recycled back into virgin-quality food packaging for Bradburys Cheese.
The multi-stakeholder project enabled collaborations at every point of the plastics value chain. Tesco first collected flexible plastic through collection points set up across its retail stores in the UK. The used flexible plastic collected was then converted into TACOIL by Plastic Energy at its facility in Seville, Spain. The TACOIL was then sent to SABIC, the world’s largest diversified chemicals company, to use this oil to create certified circular plastic resins, which form part of SABIC’s TRUCIRCLE™ portfolio. Sealed Air, one of the world’s leading packaging producers, then uses these plastic pellets to create new food-grade flexible packaging designed to be ultrathin and to protect the shelf life of perishable foods. The new film contains a minimum of 30% recycled content. As of September 2020, seven different products under Bradburys Cheese’s line use this flexible plastic packaging, which are sold in Tesco stores. The plastic packaging produced in the pilot project is certified under the recognized international sustainability certification scheme, ISCC PLUS, which traces the recycled materials along the supply chain, from feedstock to final product.
Creating a closed loop system for plastics across a diverse set of stakeholders involved overcoming three major challenges. First, the film formulation needed to be redesigned to achieve the desired level of recycled content, while retaining recyclability in the Plastic Energy process. Second, it was necessary to keep accurate records of the source and use of the recycled resin, to certify recycled content in the final product. Finally, it was critical that the resulting film complied with all food safety regulations and provided the minimum necessary performance and product protection for the target application. Once these three considerations were secured, this pilot proved the possibility of a complete plastics value chain collaboration, paving the way for more circular systems for plastic. Close collaboration and open lines of communication among partners can help ensure the quality of the product meets each company’s specifications, driving toward overall success.
As the need for circular solutions for flexible film packaging increases, Plastic Energy’s collaborative pilot will play a role in reducing plastic waste now and in the future. This pilot project demonstrates four key points:
- end-markets for this material exist,
- mixed flexible plastics can be recycled multiple times into new food-grade plastic,
- non-curbside collection systems, like retail locations, can serve as critical collection points for select materials,
- and accounting mechanisms for recycled content will be critical to validate recycling outcomes of these partnerships.
Call to Action
Three kinds of investment are needed to realize a circular value chain for plastics.
- Investment in collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure to enable efficient plastics recycling. Increased investment in recycling infrastructure that complements mechanical recycling, such as molecular recycling technologies, can increase recycling rates for plastic films and flexibles. Additionally, increased collection of post-consumer flexibles in curbside programs, in addition to store drop-off locations, can divert plastics from landfills or incineration, and toward recycling processes.
- Investment in design and manufacturing innovations. Technology is not a silver bullet solution, and investment in new innovative designs and manufacturing processing will be equally important to solutions like molecular recycling. Investment upstream and downstream ensures that materials use minimal raw resources, and are made from recycled content.
Investment in education. Consumers, businesses and governments each have specific roles to play in driving circularity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Education to help identify the actions, policy, and investments that can commercialize a circular system for plastics is necessary as we transition our systems from linear to circular.
 Multilayer packaging makes up approximately 10% of all flexible packaging produced according to the AMI European Polymer Demand 2020 report and based on CLFEX definitions of flexible film.
 Conversion technologies like pyrolysis and gasification are not exempt from pre-processing but do not require single-stream feedstock, like most purification and depolymerization technologies.