We cannot meet our climate goals without addressing plastic waste. According to a sobering new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, businesses and governments worldwide are unlikely to deliver on their ambitious targets.
Credible, ambitious plans are needed from businesses to scale reuse, deal with the issue of flexible packaging and reduce the need for single-use packaging. And the plastics industry says there is a way to help solve the crisis of plastic waste plaguing the planet's oceans, beaches and lands - recycle it chemically.
Supposing the billions in investments announced by brand owners and petrochemical companies over the last year are appropriate indicators, ground-breaking solutions to the plastic recycling challenge appear right around the corner. In truth, there is work to be done. But we are doing that work.
Hard work starts here
Advanced chemical recycling typically uses heat or chemical solvents to break down plastics into liquid and gas to produce an oil-like mixture of basic chemicals. It can transform hard-to-recycle plastics into many high-value feedstocks, reducing the need for fossil resources and limiting the environmental impact of waste management.
We are at a critical juncture for people and the planet, and we must utilise the tools and technologies that demonstrate tangible promise. We must look at a suite of solutions - including advanced recycling, mechanical recycling, design for recyclability and waste access, which, when brought together, deliver scalable circularity.
The industry has made roughly 11 billion metric tons of plastic since 1950, with half of that produced since 2006. According to the United Nations Environment Programme and GRID-Arendal in Norway, global plastic production is expected to quadruple by 2050.
In addition to a system of disparate recycling infrastructure in many countries, traditional mechanical recycling technology is unequipped to process many household packaging materials, let alone those used in sectors such as construction and agriculture.
But the adoption of advanced recycling, which enables the recovery of more types of plastic waste, is a crucial pathway to achieving circularity particularly for highly regulated applications such as direct food contact packaging - and it deserves our unrelenting attention.
The recycling market is experiencing a lack of supply and ever-growing demand. Demand comes from voluntary commitments to use more recycled plastics and reduce reliance on virgin plastics, as well as legislation to enforce the same.
To help fill this gap, companies are increasingly looking towards chemical recycling. Where mechanical processes are challenged by material type, grade, degradation, or contamination, chemical recycling can take it back to monomers or recycled feedstocks and keep the waste out of landfill or incineration. As time goes on, as collection rates improve, and as brands meet their 30% recycled content goals in countries like the UK, mechanical recycling will become more challenging to cope with the underlying demand and its limitation to some end-use applications, such as direct food contact products.
Working in tandem
The desire to see action on plastic waste is easy to understand but identifying the most effective approaches to the problems - and those of the future - represent a complex challenge spanning the entire plastics value chain.
The way plastic is currently recycled is more of a downward spiral than an infinite loop. Plastics are typically sorted by polymer type, cleaned, shredded, melted, and remoulded in mechanical recycling solutions; each time this occurs, the quality of the material is degraded.
A world where all plastic can be recycled and reborn into new types of plastic is no longer just a dream. Combining mechanical and advanced recycling can recycle over 90% of all plastics worldwide.
Sceptics of advanced recycling are often blinded by the pursuit of a silver-bullet solution for the reduction of plastic waste and increase in recycled products when, in fact, a breadth of solutions will be required to achieve a circular economy. Outright critics often voice concerns regarding advanced recycling's higher energy intensity, which only emphasises the importance of combining systems for more efficiency.
When certain types of plastic waste - such as plastic water bottles - work within the mechanical recycling stream, these materials should continue through the mechanical processing system. Other materials, such as hard-to-recycle plastic multilayer films, should serve as the raw material for advanced recycling. This way, the myriad of plastic products - from detergent bottles to freezer bags - can all be recycled and reused in brand-new products.
The diversity of advanced recycling solutions is akin to the complexity of plastic waste, which comprises different types of plastics with diverse polymer chemistries. And demonstrating the option for scale will also be critical in carving out a marketplace for advanced recycling as an industry-changing solution. We must work to build the supply chains needed to increase the availability and utilisation of renewable and circular feedstocks. As a result, and as more plastic becomes available as circular feedstock, this will also drive decarbonisation and decouple production from fossil-based sources.
Part of the solution
Recycling, particularly plastics, is not a panacea to our overuse of natural resources. We cannot continue our addiction to plastics and recycle our way out of the biodiversity and climate crisis. Recycling is vital in closing the loop once prevention and reuse options - such as refillable packaging - have been exhausted.
At Greenback, we plan to drive innovation to empower the circular economy, creating a greener future for all. The advanced recycling plants we are building are scalable and agile and can be quickly established in modular units set up at landfill sites or where the waste occurs or exists. This allows for a more streamlined collection process and creates jobs around the local area, increasing economic productivity in developing nations. Another critical point is that it avoids the highly inefficient transportation of light waste and enables for moving of a valuable densified material instead.
In addition, our proprietary eco2Veritas Circularity Platform, which is a technology-based real-time monitoring certification system, also allows us to verify that all materials collected are post-consumer waste and effectively being recycled. We use pioneering blockchain technology to store data about the waste we process in a way that's both open and secure, so its provenance can be verified at all levels of the supply chain. This allows waste to be digitally tracked on its journey to becoming packaging again, so brands and the plastics value chain can easily verify the recycled content of all their products.
We're incredibly determined to establish a decentralised network of collection and recycling plants near sources of post-consumer plastic waste worldwide to produce recycled feedstocks suitable for the petrochemical and plastics industry value chain to close the loop. And through smart contracts, we ensure a fair distribution of value to all actors in the supply chain, including the informal waste collection sector.
A new approach
Enval's microwave-induced pyrolysis technology used by Greenback has been explicitly developed to recover complex plastic packaging and enable the harvesting of aluminium in some of these compositions. It can handle many materials, including multi-layer (foil/film) laminates. When carbon is exposed to a microwave field, it can reach temperatures above 600°C in just a few minutes. If shredded dry plastic waste is mixed with the carbon, the energy absorbed from the microwaves is transferred to the plastic by conduction quickly and efficiently. As the packaging travels through the oven, the plastic, glue and ink layers degrade via the pyrolysis process to form a mixture of hydrocarbons ranging from C3 to C20.
This mixture, gas inside the oven, exits and is then cooled down and separated into two fractions: gas and oil - referred to as Py-Oil. The gas generates the electricity required to power the process, and the condensed oils can be used as feedstock to produce new plastic.
When the right technology is implemented and utilised, shifting to a circular economy creates new markets and opportunities for the petrochemical recycling industry and consumer packaged goods companies. A critical challenge for businesses and brands attempting to solve their plastics waste issues is securing legitimate sources of clean, recycled plastics and verifying the provenance of materials - from the point of collection to use.
Greenback's new approach and mindset are required to deliver the scale, provenance, and professionalism the waste collection and recycling industry needs to meet demand soon.
By working in partnership with Enval, CPGs and Petrochemical companies to install innovative recycling technology complemented by advanced digital solutions at landfill sites,
Greenback is addressing the challenge head-on
Achieving widespread adoption of advanced recycling technology and circularity may be challenging, but it is far from impossible. We can create a circular ecosystem with a mix of all the technologies and innovations our industry leaders bring to bear. However, this requires a significant resource commitment that hinges on greater regulatory certainty and acceptance of advanced recycling and mass balance.
Through hybrid solutions, which focus on scalability and regulatory engagement, our recycling system can realise the game-changing moment we are on the precipice.
The necessary combination of solutions for circularity includes the complementary and symbiotic nature of advanced and mechanical recycling ecosystems.
Philippe von Stauffenberg is the founder and CEOof Greenback Recycling Technologies, a UK-headquartered company of over 40 people on a mission to solve the global plastic