Plastic recycling is evolving. The next step will be more like reincarnation.
At least 60 chemical companies are racing to develop technology that can return trash to its original ingredients, according to a report Tuesday. The process creates clean, virgin resin that can be used for new products, avoiding the need to pump oil for endless fresh batches.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for an industry under attack for producing a ubiquitous material essential to modern life that’s grown notorious for choking the world’s oceans and killing its animals. Resin makers and consumer brands are trying to head off a global backlash that’s already eroding demand for their products.
Old-fashioned recycling is a relatively crude, mechanical system that can’t handle most varieties of resin and can’t get rid of all the contaminants, resulting in dirty plastic with limited uses. Yogurt tubs are sent to the landfill and milk jugs are made into plastic lumber.
Less than 10 percent of plastic in North America gets recycled, generating one pound of recycled plastic for every 15 of demand, Closed Loop Partners, an investment firm focused on creating a circular economy, found in a study.
Eastman Chemical Co. is joining a parade of companies large and small aiming to develop ways to take old plastic, break it down into its chemical components and then use that to regenerate raw materials. Eastman last week announced it will begin a commercial-scale operation to reclaim mixed plastic waste that otherwise would end up in landfills, with a second plant targeting polyester waste to follow.
“We have completely broken down these plastic feedstocks to their original molecular building blocks,” said Tim Dell, vice president of corporate innovation at Eastman. The output is “indistinguishable from what’s produced by fossil sources.”
Eastman’s initiatives join a field of technologies that break down polymers using everything from microwaves, in the case of Ontario’s Pyrowave Inc., to enzymes, as pioneered at Carbios, a publicly traded French company, according to Closed Loop. Polystyvert Inc., a Montreal startup, uses an essential oil to dissolve polystyrene, the plastic used in yogurt cups and packaging foam.
Chemical recycling could quadruple global plastics recycling rates to 50 percent by 2030, up from 12 percent now, according to a December report from consultant McKinsey & Co.