The global conversation around how humans have impacted the physical environment triggering climate change has seismically shifted in recent years. What was once unthinkable – Net Zero commitments, EPR policies, and firm plastic tax laws – is now a reality in many countries across the world. Innovations in the circular economy are in the spotlight like never before, driving change for brands, converters, and manufacturers.
The circular economy as it exists now is vital but narrow in scope. According to the UN, only 9% of manufactured plastics have been recycled, 12 per cent have been incinerated, and 79% end up as waste. To truly be able to drive change on a global scale, it must expand and improve on this number. To do so, the recycling industry must augment the effective but limited mechanical recycling process with innovative new solutions.
The recycled plastic shortage
The limitations of mechanical recycling have already had severe ramifications across the plastics, packaging, food and drink, and consumer goods industries. As such a small proportion of plastic is recycled, there is simply not enough recyclate available to meet demand. That demand is only growing as consumer brands pledge to slash their use of virgin petroleum plastics in their products and packaging. However, in a rush to prove their eco-credentials, many of these brands have made commitments that recyclate supplies are currently struggling to meet.
While the circular economy ethos seeks to detach economic growth from the consumption of resources, this cannot happen if the supply chain is forced to consume those resources in the absence of recyclate. The only way to empower the circular economy is to embrace more versatile solutions that can help it meet the needs of businesses.
Improving the value chain through chemical recycling
One solution that has emerged over recent years is chemical recycling. Chemical recycling is an umbrella term that covers a variety of plastic-to-plastic and plastic-to-feedstock processes.
One key benefit of chemical recycling is that it can make what was typically regarded as low-quality plastic waste such as coloured HDPE bottles into something more valuable. In the case of HDPE, it separates any colouring from the polymer, significantly increasing its value when used as feedstock. It also increases the value proposition of mixed waste bales, which – under mechanical recycling processes – would need to be sorted before being recycled, a costly and time-consuming process. While chemical recycling does require some materials to be sorted, the process is not as strict, saving time and increasing throughput at recycling plants.
Unlocking new possibilities for previously low-quality, low-value waste is the key value proposition for chemical recycling as it continues to scale up. Environmental research and consultancy group Wood Mackenzie models that, if adopted wholesale alongside mechanical recycling, chemical recycling could more than double the amount of plastic packaging pushed back into the supply chain by 2040.
Perhaps the most important way chemical recycling can empower the circular economy is that it can process materials that mechanical recycling cannot. Films and multi-polymer flexible packaging, which would previously be left on a landfill or incinerated, can now enter the petrochemical value chain. And, by driving innovation in chemical recycling further, companies such as Greenback Recycling can ensure the technology only gets broader in scope in the future.
Chemical recycling offers whole new avenues for recyclate that make a global circular economy significantly more viable. However, as an emerging technology, it is improving all the time, unlocking new possibilities to find value where there previously were none. There is no better example of this than the pioneering work carried out by our sister company, Enval.
Enval developed a new, more sustainable pyrolysis technique that uses microwave energy to break down plastics into solid, liquid, and gaseous components. The gas is funnelled back into the system and used for power generation, reducing overall CO2 emissions and energy costs. This microwave system is the only one in the world that can separate plastic aluminium laminates into low-carbon-cost aluminium and pyrolysis oil. As the technology is further refined and improved, this will only unlock new revenue streams for the waste handling and recycling industries. This, in turn, creates an abundance of feedstock with which more sustainable plastic packaging can be made.
Our vision for the circular economy
At Greenback, we plan to drive innovation to empower the circular economy, creating a greener future for all. The plants we are building are scalable and agile and can be quickly established in modular units set up at landfill sites. This allows for a more streamlined collection process and creates jobs around the local area, increasing economic productivity in developing nations. Another key point is that it avoids the highly inefficient transportation of waste.
It also allows us to verify that all materials collected are post-consumer waste. 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 can easily verify the recycled content of all their packaging.
Supporting the growth of a circular economy is a challenge, but it is one that presents a wealth of opportunities for retailers, converters, and manufacturers who use plastic packaging. It encourages continual innovation, and chemical recycling proves that these innovations can result in whole new revenue streams and improved profitability for everyone in the plastics industry.
Around 79% of manufactured plastics are not recycled, according to the UN. For this figure to fall, we need a thriving circular economy and, through innovations like chemical recycling, we can make this a reality.
Phillippe von Stauffenberg is the founder and CEO of Greenback Recycling Technologies