If good intentions were enough, we would have no problem with plastics. There is no shortage of ambition, targets, and commitments to stem the tide of waste plastics and resulting pollution.
Last August, Canada became the latest country to sign up to the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution. Aiming to address plastic pollution, which, without action, is set to double by 2060, the coalition commits signatories to establishing “an ambitious and effective international legally binding instrument… to end plastic pollution by 2040.”
Already, there’s been significant action on the national level. In the US, Maine, Oregon, Colorado, and California have all committed to cutting plastic waste through extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws, making plastics packaging producers responsible for funding their clean-up, mainly through recycling. New York is currently considering similar regulations, too.
Several European laws are also already in place, including the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, which requires EPR of all Member States. The European Union is the most aggressive when it comes to addressing waste with new regulations regularly coming into force. In January, for example, Italy enacted Europe’s first EPR law for compostable packaging, which sees it collected alongside food scraps.
Reducing plastic waste: big ambitions, little progress.
It’s one thing to have lofty ambitions to reduce plastic waste. It’s another to achieve them. The will is there; it’s not yet clear we’ve found a way. California, for instance, has long sought to reduce plastics use and waste, starting with a ban on single-use grocery bags in 2014. In 2022, it enacted Senate Bill 54 to start phasing out all varieties of single-use plastic in 2025. Yet in 2021 its overall recycling rate was only 40% – down from the previous year. Of this 40%, approximately 11.8% is recycled plastics, still considered significantly below what is needed for true circularity. In the United Kingdom, where EPR reporting requirements came into force at the end of February, surveys suggest businesses are unprepared. Across Europe, despite some progress, there’s also a significant lack of alignment in the detail of regulations and how they are implemented.
In a sense, that’s unsurprising. We are at an early stage, but regulation would do well to keep in mind certain realities.
First, it’s clear that the need for plastics will remain across a wide range of industries for the foreseeable future. They may be reduced, but they will not be eliminated. For food and beverages, they both protect and preserve in a way not currently replicable by other materials. They stop perishables like milk from degrading due to ultraviolet light, for example, while flexible plastics maintain food’s integrity and often nutrition as it travels across global supply chains.
In fact, such plastics play an important role in protecting the environment by massively reducing food spoilage and extending shelf life to reduce carbon footprints and food waste. They are also lighter weight than alternatives (reducing packaging mass and greenhouse gas emissions in transport). For the same reason, the rising adoption of electric vehicles — crucial to meet environmental goals — is likely to mean increased demand for plastics, given that plastics are often preferred over metal for such vehicles to keep weight (and the required power) down.
Likewise, pharmaceuticals and biopharmaceuticals require plastic films, rigid caps, and covers to keep medical devices and medications sanitary and safe for patient use. For a range of less obvious goods — whether electronics, machinery, or equipment — plastic packaging prevents damage during transport and delivery.
New packaging materials may well emerge, but it will take time for equipment to adapt, new suppliers to be found, and new materials tested to ensure they will protect and preserve end products. We have learned too often in the past that a rush to adopt alternative solutions (such as the shift from incandescent to mercury containing compact fluorescent lights) can create problems of its own.
We need to accept that change takes time.
Reducing plastic waste is a mixed bag of challenges and solutions.
An obvious consequence is that recycling will play a major role if targets are to be met. Reducing demand for plastics will not do it alone. Here again, though, there’s significant work to be done. Both public education and recycling infrastructure will need to be developed, but technical barriers must also be overcome.
The problem is that, even where plastics are recycled, only a small minority are successfully repurposed, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. That’s because regulations restrict the recycled plastic content used for packaging (such as food, medicines and so on) or demand sterilization or decontamination. As a result, the majority of uses for packaging require new, virgin plastic created from non-renewable sources or advanced chemical recycling that can produce virgin-like plastic.
Crucially, traditional mechanical recycling recycles less than 10% of plastic waste, and because plastic properties degrade in the process, the material is often downcycled. Many materials are simply not suitable for mechanical recycling infrastructures, with collection, sorting, and processing capabilities that are unable to adequately separate different types of plastic waste.
Chemical processes — advanced recycling that breaks plastics down to the molecular level — produce better quality material, work well for drink bottles made of PET, but has not been used extensively for lower quality mixed wastes.
Again, it is early days, and developments in technology will help partially overcome such challenges in time. Digital watermark technology being rolled out in France, for example, could significantly improve the efficacy and efficiency of sorting different types of packaging. But even there, it’s only at the pilot stage, and not all countries have the recycling infrastructure to handle such sophisticated packaging even when it's theoretically recyclable.
Just as we remain reliant on plastics for the foreseeable future, we must continue dealing with mixed plastic waste.
Working with the reality of plastics, packaging, and recycling.
This is the challenge that Honeywell’s UpCycle Process Technology addresses. Enhancing a proven advanced recycling plant design operating at commercial scale in Europe in the 1990s, it’s a solution that dramatically expands the types of plastics that can be converted into recycled polymer feedstock (RPF) to produce virgin-quality plastic.
In doing so, it works within the constraints and limitations of countries’ infrastructure, reducing the need for mixed waste sorting by handling mixed materials. It also meets the reality of continuing demand for virgin quality plastic by using molecular conversion, pyrolysis, and contaminants management technology to convert waste plastic back to Honeywell RPF that can be used to create several types of plastic.
At the same time, by using a wider range of waste, including colored and flexible plastics, multilayer packaging, and polystyrene, it minimizes the use of crude oil in plastics manufacturing and the amount of plastic waste going to landfill or incineration.
When used in conjunction with other chemical and mechanical recycling processes — along with improvements to collection and sorting — Honeywell’s UpCycle Process Technology has the potential to help recycle nearly 90% of waste plastics. This would represent a considerable increase in the amount of waste plastics that can be turned into polymer feedstock.
In other words, when it comes to cutting plastic waste much closer together, it could bring our reality and rhetoric together.
See also Complimentary Recycling Strengthens Circular Plastics Economy, published February 2022.
Kevin Quast, Global Head of Honeywell Plastics Circularity Business, is responsible for developing and executing the business and commercialization strategy to grow the Plastics Circularity business leveraging product technology, industry partnerships, and alternate business models.