Chemical recycling, or “upcycling,” has been getting a lot of attention lately. We have written about Loop Industries Inc., which has developed a patented and proprietary technology that decouples polymers from fossil fuels by depolymerizing waste plastic into its base building blocks (monomers). The monomers are then filtered, purified and re-polymerized to create virgin-quality polyester plastic suitable for use in food-grade packaging.
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) also announced this year an innovative method of plastics upcycling—the Volcat process—which transforms discarded products into new, high-value materials of better quality and environmental value.
While all of this sounds good, what is the economic value of these new processes? How about nearly $10 billion? If widely adopted, advanced plastics recycling and recovery processes could result in nearly 40,000 direct and indirect U.S. jobs, as much as $2.2 billion in annual payroll, and another $9.9 billion in direct and indirect economic output, according to a report released today by the American Chemistry Council (ACC; Washington, DC), Economic Impact of Advanced Plastics Recycling and Recovery Facilities in the U.S.
“Advanced plastic recycling and recovery technologies have the potential to revolutionize the way we make, use and reuse our plastic resources,” said Steve Russell, ACC’s Vice President of Plastics. “These technologies further demonstrate the untapped value of used plastics and have the potential to dramatically accelerate our transition to a circular economy.”
Priyanka Bakaya, founder and CEO of Renewlogy and chair of the Plastics-to-Fuel and Petrochemistry Alliance, which commissioned the study, commented, “Expanding advanced plastic recycling and recovery facilities could create thousands of U.S. jobs, result in billions of dollars in economic output, and eliminate the landfilling of 6.5 million tons of post-use recoverable plastics each year.”
Several major plastics makers and energy companies have recently announced investments and/or agreements with advanced plastics recycling and recovery technology providers, which are helping to demonstrate and scale these processes.
Last May, plastics makers in the United States, Canada and Europe committed to the goal of recycling or recovering all plastic packaging in these regions by 2040. Such technologies are expected to play a crucial role in meeting these goals.
“Plastic packaging and consumer products weigh less than alternatives, helping to reduce transportation fuel use, greenhouse gas emissions and waste. Learning to treat used plastics as a resource has both economic and environmental benefits. Converting more of these materials to valuable products and raw materials will help keep plastic waste out of the environment and in productive use,” Russell said.
Prepared by ACC’s Economics and Statistics Department, this report updates a similar analysis completed in 2014. The earlier analysis only examined the economic potential associated with converting used plastics into synthetic crude oil. Since then, these technologies have significantly expanded the range of outputs to meet demand for specific commodities.
The latest report examines a class of advanced plastic recycling and recovery technologies commonly known as “chemical recycling,” which includes pyrolysis and depolymerization. These advanced technologies complement traditional recycling, also known as mechanical recycling, and could help society recover and repurpose a much broader range of post-use plastics.