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Breakthroughs in Plastic Recycling, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), only about 10% of the plastic waste created yearly on a global basis is recycled.  (About 15% of such waste is recycled in the U.S., according to some estimates.)  This is largely due to the difficulty in breaking polymers down, as well as the logistical challenges in gathering discarded plastics.  Since roughly 400 million tons of plastic is produced per year (about one-half of it for single-use items such as food packaging and small bags given to customers in retail stores), the problem is staggering.  Literally hundreds of billions of plastic drink bottles and shopping bags are being thrown away yearly, and that doesn’t count larger plastic items such as toys and automobile components.
Traditional plastic recycling is a lengthy process that often includes the tasks of separating, crushing, grinding, washing, drying, regranulating, melting and compounding.  The process degrades the plastic’s quality and over time, multiple recyclings render the material unusable.  An advancement is a chemical-based recycling method that uses heat, chemical reactions or a combination thereof to break down used plastic into raw materials such as oil.  Those materials can then be used to create new plastic, fuel or other chemicals.
Coca-Cola plans for all of its plastic containers to meet its 50% recycled material content goal by 2030 and make 100% of its packaging recyclable by 2025.  In 2023, Coca-Cola Europacific Partners, the company’s largest bottler in the EU, invested in startup CuRe Technology, which plans to make bottles from plastic that is typically thrown away because of the complexity of recycling it.  The process involves leaching color from polyester and turning it into clear pellets.  If this becomes economically viable, it could be a major leap forward in plastics recycling. 
One method of chemical recycling is feedstock recycling (also called thermal conversion).  After washing, shredding and packing, the used plastic is taken to a pyrolysis center for melting.  The melted material is fed into a pyrolysis reactor and heated to extreme temperatures.  (Pyrolysis is a technology for heating organic materials to temperatures of about 500 degrees centigrade, without the use of oxygen.)  The material becomes gaseous and, as it cools, condenses into liquid similar to oil.  The first commercial scale pyrolysis unit opened in Perth in Scotland in 2020.  In the U.S., chemical firm Ineos plans to build a number of new pyrolysis recycling plants.  Over the long term, global investment in this sector is likely to be massive.

Internet Research Tip, Plastics Recycling Advancements:

     Some manufacturers are studying ways to create high grade industrial plastics that are easier to break down.  Researchers at MIT are working to develop thermoset plastics (such as epoxies, polyurethanes and rubber used for tires which are durable and heat resistant but cannot easily be recycled because of the inherent chemical bonds that hold them together) with a chemical linker, essentially making breakdown easier while retaining necessary strength.  The researchers recently produced a degradable thermoset material called pDCPD that can be broken down into a powder.  That powder can be used to create more pDCPD.  It’s possible that the same process could be used on a range of different polymers including rubber.

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