The plastic waste problem is creating a shortage of technologies to address it.
In the wake of this crisis, so called ‘advanced recycling’ has been hailed as the solution to overall plastic pollution by petrochemical companies as well as consumer brands.
The latter have been partnering with biotech start-ups to develop a viable system to recycle so called ‘unrecyclable plastics’, that is, plastics that have been contaminated by food waste or are made up of several different kinds of plastic. Chemical recycling, a process by which polymers are melted down via extreme heat and pressure into their individual building blocks and then rendered to produce either new plastics or biofuels, has been posited as a way of achieving higher quality recycling whilst avoiding the further proliferation of plastic waste on landfills.
Yet in recent years, the ‘high-tech’ boom seems to have fizzled out as four high profile projects have been dropped or have stalled over the past 2 years.
One of these partnerships saw Dow Inc, one of the world’s largest plastic makers, pair up with chemical recycling start-up Renewlogy in 2018. The plan was for Renewlogy to process hard to recycle flexible packaging waste generated by households in Boise, Idaho, yet the company ultimately proved unable to handle plastic ‘films’, which are used to make shopping bags and food packaging. Claiming that the Boise waste was too contaminated to handle, Renewlogy ended up backing away from the project whilst the waste in question ended up being trucked to a Utah cement plant where it was burned for fuel.
A more recent instance of failure with regards to a prominent chemical recycling project occurred when Anglo-Dutch oil giant Royal Dutch Shell Plc pledged itself in March 2019 to finance a low carbon fuels plant developed by Enerkem, a leading Canadian clean tech company. The company stated that it would convert waste from the equivalent of 700, 000 Rotterdam homes into a form of bio-methanol, a fuel used in the chemical and transportation sector. In the end, however, investment by Shell was stalled over concerns about the initiative’s financial viability, as stated by two sourced close to the project.
Financial challenges also proved fatal to Unilever Plc. The producer, known for making Dove soap, announced its intention to recycle plastic sachets (used to package ketchup, shampoo and toothpaste, amongst other things) in 2017 but dropped the idea upon realising that their proprietary technology was not ready yet for large-scale commercial application. Whilst Unilever did manage to recycle small amounts of plastic sachets, the process as a whole proved too costly for large scale replication purposes.
Attempts to convert plastic waste into jet fuel for Delta Airlines did not even extend beyond the planning stage as construction on ‘the first truly commercial-scale facility to advance the new plastics economy’ never started, plans being derailed by the spread of Covid in early 2020.
As these examples show, chemical recycling is far from being the holy grail solution for plastic waste, also given the fact that for every tonne of plastic treated via this method, three tonnes of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. Yet investment and research in this field can be promising (as proven by Unilever!) and, given time, may help supplement a holistic approach grounded in the overall reduction of plastic production as well as the reliance on mechanical recycling.