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Chemical Recycling Is No Silver Bullet for Eliminating Plastic Waste

Chemical recycling projects are attracting massive investments but, so far, the ROI is negligible.

Clare Goldsberry

February 13, 2021

10 Min Read
recycled resins
Image: Aykuterd/Adobe Stock

A paper published last fall in Chemical & Engineering News (CEN) by the American Chemical Society (ACS), “Companies are placing big bets on plastics recycling. Are the odds in their favor?” noted that “chemical recycling is attracting billions in capital spending, but environmentalists don’t think it will solve the plastic waste problem.”

This isn’t news. Consumers and especially anti-plastics activists have lost faith in the plastic industry’s ability to help solve a problem it has been accused of creating, and the slow pace of advanced recycling technologies, aka chemical recycling, hasn’t helped renew confidence that this will be the silver bullet that will rid the world of plastic waste. But attempts continue unabated and the cost of trying is proving to be extremely high.

Even the pace of adoption of various types of plastic, from recyclable traditional plastics such as PET and HDPE to bioplastics, as alternatives to traditional plastics seems extremely slow. The chemical recycling industry also has taken hits, as noted above. For example, the CEN/ACS paper opened by saying that in 2022 “Mondelez International intends to start packaging its Philadelphia brand cream cheese in a tube made from chemically recycled plastics. The packaging maker Berry Global will mold the containers. Petrochemical giant Sabic will supply the polypropylene. And the start-up Plastic Energy will produce feedstock for that polypropylene from postconsumer plastics at a plant it is constructing on Sabic’s site in Geleen, Netherlands.”

We’re not holding our collective breaths.

For at least a decade I’ve written blogs about the many consumer brand owners such as Kraft Heinz, Mondelez, and Nestlé being pressured by anti-plastics activist group As You Sow to find alternatives to single-use plastic packaging as a means to end plastic waste in the environment. Through shareholder proposals, As You Sow keeps applying the pressure, writing about the continued lack of progress these companies are making and the slow pace of adoption of alternative materials, most of which are no “greener” than plastics when you examine their life-cycle analyses. Still, to appease these activist groups, big brand owners keep promising to find the Holy Grail of recycling that will turn mountains of plastic trash into beautifully pure new plastic, or millions of gallons of fuel and other base chemicals from which to make new plastics.

Promises, promises.

The CEN/ACS report is correct when it says that Mondelez “isn’t the only multinational firm promising a high-profile business to start-ups, some of which haven’t even built their first recycling plants yet. Food, beverage, and consumer product companies — under fire to do something about mounting plastic waste — are clamoring to set up relationships like [Mondelez, Berry and Sabic]. They have embraced chemical recycling as a means of incorporating renewable content without the performance compromises common with current recycling methods. Seeing a market, recycling companies will spend billions of dollars on recycling projects in the US and Europe in the 2020s.”

An announcement from recycler Agilyx Corp. applauded the National Recycling Strategy announced by the US Environmental Protection Agency, touting the “significant progress in domestic investment in the US recycling system. In the past three years, 64 projects in mechanical and advanced recycling in the US have been announced, valued at $5.3 billion, according to the American Chemistry Council (ACC). Together, these projects have the potential to divert more than four million metric tons of waste from landfills each year. In addition, many companies have made significant commitments to use recycled plastics in their packaging and products,” said Agilyx’s announcement of support.

Many of the announced projects for chemical recycling facilities that I’ve written about over the past five years are, at this point, dead in the water. Some have been limping along for two decades, still unable to take in any significant amount of plastic waste to produce commercially viable amounts of fuel, chemicals, or new plastic. Yet, new announcements for chemical recycling facilities pop up in my inbox like dandelions on a spring lawn, announcing large investments and making even grander promises of helping solve the plastic waste crisis.

For example, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced on June 2, 2020, that Braven Environmental, a company that uses pyrolysis technology to derive fuel from landfill-bound plastic, will invest $31.7 million to establish a manufacturing operation in Cumberland County. Virginia successfully competed with North Carolina and South Carolina for the project.

Northam boasted of the “well-paid job opportunities” for the citizens of Cumberland County and the company’s contribution to lessening Virginia’s environmental footprint. Braven received a $150,000 grant from the Commonwealth Opportunity Fund to assist Cumberland County with the project. The Virginia Tobacco Region revitalization commission approved $65,000 in Tobacco Region Opportunity Funds for the project, and funding and services to support the company’s employee training activities will be provided through the Virginia Jobs Investment Program. Braven plans to create a total of over 80 new jobs within 18 months of the first phase of this project. (Read the article PlasticsToday published about this project.)

Virginia’s chemical recycling bills a “step backwards.”

A January 26, 2021, report in the online newsletter Blue Virginia criticized two plastics “chemical recycling” bills in the Virginia Assembly, saying that these bills “represent a step backwards” for Virginia’s climate and public health. SB1164 and HB 2173 are “rapidly moving forward” in the current session and “represent textbook examples of ‘greenwashing’” according to Blue Virginia.

HB 2173 Advanced Recycling defines advanced recycling as a “manufacturing process for the conversion of post-use polymers and recovered feedstocks into basic hydrocarbon raw materials and other material.” The bill also defines “gasification,” “post-use polymers,” and other terms related to advanced recycling. SB 1164 is also an advanced recycling bill with the same definition as HB 2173, but adding that advanced recycling is “not considered waste management.”

In an attempt to find out if there is any connection between the two bills in the Virginia Assembly and the proposed construction of the Braven Environmental facility, I called the Economic Development Authority (EDA) and left messages, requesting a progress report on the Braven facility. An assistant at the EDA office said she passed my message along to two other people. Attempts to reach those individuals were unsuccessful. No returned phone calls were received.

All that is being received are promises and commitments. We’re still waiting for the big cleanup to begin.

University researchers pick up the ball.

As some of the world’s largest companies, brand owners, and Big Oil pour resources into chemical recycling to counter the image of “plastic polluters,” another group is also hard at work in its labs — academe.

For example, Steven Crossley, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma School of Chemical, Biological, and Materials Engineering, was recently awarded a four-year, $2-million collaborative grant by the Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation program of the National Science Foundation to advance polymer recycling technologies in hopes of sending fewer multi-layer plastics to landfills. Crossley's is the latest in a number of ongoing projects in academic settings trying to solve the problem.

Recycling, the announcement noted, has its challenges and the big one is “for researchers to design a process that allows more of the plastics we use in our everyday lives to end up in our recycle bins rather than the local landfill. But not only does this require scientists to design innovative ways to break down these various types of plastic, it also must be economical for the plastic producers and recyclers.”

Another challenge to recycling — especially mechanical recycling — involves the impurities that accompany recyclate to the recycling facility. “Impurities, such as food and drink in the bottom of a plastic container . . . are difficult to eliminate, and once melted down, degrade the quality of the recycled material,” said the university.

Steven Crossley of the University of Oklahoma School of Chemical, Biological, and Materials Engineering is leading a chemical recycling project exploring the use of catalysts to neutralize impurities in recyclate.

That’s where Crossley’s work comes into play. “But what if,” he asks, “we could design catalysts that target and convert those impurities to either make them more compatible with the rest of the plastic, or convert them selectively to carbon dioxide or light gases that could easily be removed, producing a pure stream of higher value.”

Crossley’s research group’s efforts will be complemented by computational simulations led by Associate Professor Bin Wang and experimental efforts in a scaled-up continuous system led by Professor Lance Lobban. Both researchers work in the School of Chemical, Biological, and Materials Engineering at the University of Oklahoma (OU).

As we all know, recycling requires the mass participation of consumers actually putting their recyclable items into a recycling bin. As recyclers like to say: “We can’t recycle it if we can’t get our hands on it.” So, in addition to upgrading mixed plastic waste streams using catalysts, Adam Feltz, associate professor of psychology at OU, “will incorporate public perception surveys to determine how best to motivate appropriate public participation in plastic waste collection systems.”

That’s certainly one angle I never thought of — a clean and beautiful environment isn’t enough “motivation” for consumers to put their recyclable plastic (and other materials) into the recycling system. We need a psychologist on the team to determine what needs to happen in peoples’ minds to actually motivate them to put recyclable items in a recycling bin.

Talk about “giving it the old college try!”

Supply of recycled plastics fails to meet demand.

The CEN/ACS report cited the “deep skepticism” surrounding the various chemical recycling methods from groups such as Greenpeace and GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives), which both have expressed doubt in recent papers that chemical recycling will ever be viable. In GAIA’s report, “All Talk and No Recycling: An Investigation of the US ‘Chemical Recycling’ Industry,” the group “alleges that the plastics and fossil-fuel industries are promoting chemical recycling ‘as the silver bullet to solve the plastic crisis.’”

The ACC reports that the demand for recycled plastics is increasing to meet brand owners’ sustainability goals. But will there be enough recycled material to meet that demand? The CEN/ACS report said that it’s doubtful. Given the size of the plastic waste problem and the “big commitments of consumer product companies,” there are also big opportunities. However, meeting demand won’t be easy. Agliyx CEO Tim Stedman told CEN/ACS that his company would “need to build more than 20 plants with 100 tons per day of capacity to meet a target of 30% recycled content in polystyrene packaging in North America and Europe, which half the market has already committed to.”

Have consumer products companies over-committed in their “sustainable” promises? People in the industry, who commented for the CEN/ACS report, say absolutely, like Berry’s Robert Flores, VP of Sustainability: “There is actually not currently enough [recycled material] out there to meet all those goals, quite frankly.”

The CEN/ACS report concludes what most of us in the industry already know, and that is, despite the demand, “environmentalists say the first chemical recycling projects are having difficulty getting off the ground.” Noting the Greenpeace report, “Deception by the Numbers,” released last September, 52 projects were analyzed. These projects make up the $4.8 billion investment figure cited by the ACC. Greenpeace estimates that a third of these projects are not likely to be viable. From my own research over the past several years, I think one-third is a bit optimistic.

But that’s the way science operates. Failure is part of the game. Trial and error is the way advances in science are made, and there are a few chemical recycling plants in operation that are seeing some measure of success in actually producing fuels and chemicals from the plastic waste they collect from various municipalities. But, as they tell me — and as Agilyx’s CEO points out to CEN/ACS — there’s not nearly enough capacity to make a dent in the waste being generated.

PlasticsToday has run numerous articles and blogs regarding the problems being encountered by entrepreneurial start-ups that appear to be good at finding investors but not so great at making any real progress in eliminating plastic waste. CEN/ACS’s report mentions Loop Industries toward the end, noting the promises and commitments that company has made over the past three years. We all know the situation Loop Industries has found itself in.

I think that the sub-headline in the CEN/ACS report says it best: “Chemical recycling is attracting billions in capital spending, but environmentalists don’t think it will solve the plastic waste problem.”

It’s up to these companies to prove the environmentalists wrong — and they should do so sooner rather than later.

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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