A circular plastics supply chain is still in its infancy. So, how do we work together to create a viable marketplace for advanced recycling to thrive? Here are a few strategies and approaches that show early promise.
We’ve heard the statistic that only a fraction of plastic waste is recycled, but the root cause of this is far more complex than it appears on the surface — and as such, deserves unrelenting attention. 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 adoption of advanced recycling, which enables the recovery of more types of plastic waste, is a key pathway to achieving circularity — and it is now within our grasp.
Advanced recycling has massive, untapped market potential and can bring sustainability and circularity to previously incompatible areas such as food-grade and medical-grade packaging. This is because advanced recycling technology can break down hard-to-recycle plastics that would otherwise be incinerated or sent to landfills; so, the same material can be reused again and again, and create the same high quality of entirely new plastic.
Yet, the circular plastics supply chain is still in its infancy — waste processors with advanced recycling capabilities are only starting up and, for some, their commercial facilities are not built yet. So, how do we work together to create a viable marketplace for advanced recycling to thrive? Here are a few strategies and approaches Dow and our partners are exploring that show early promise.
Integrating hybrid solutions
Skeptics 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 emphasizes the importance of combining systems for more efficiency.
The necessary combination of solutions for circularity includes the complementary and symbiotic nature of advanced and mechanical recycling ecosystems. Both systems are vital to creating more efficient processes to enable a full circular economy for plastics.
We are at a critical juncture for people and planet; and it is vital that we utilize the tools and technologies that demonstrate tangible promise. There is no “one solution that fits all” path toward reducing plastic waste, while enabling quality of life. Instead, 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.
That’s why Dow has invested in a partnership with the French recycling company Valoregen to build the largest hybrid-recycling site in France, marking an important step in bringing together advanced and mechanical recycling facilities in one processing location. This partnership will yield resins — the ingredients for recycled materials — which Dow can apply to our REVOLOOP™ recycled range of products, which recently received certification for plastics recycling traceability and content in Europe.
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. For other materials, such as “hard to recycle” plastic films, these materials should serve as the raw ingredients for advanced recycling. This way, the myriad of plastic products — from detergent bottles to freezer bags — can all be recycled and reused into brand-new products.
Driving scale and capacity
Brands and consumers alike are increasingly demanding more circular solutions. We see this consistently at Dow; so much so, it has become central to our growth strategy. Recently, a coalition of consumer goods giants signaled that there is significant and increasing demand for chemically recycled plastic from corporations across Europe — at least 800,000 tons per year across only 40 companies. Scaling advanced recycling technologies will be a key pathway to accelerate product capabilities and post-consumer recycled supply to meet this demand.
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 utilization of renewable and circular feedstocks. As a result, and as more plastic becomes available as circular feedstock, this will also drive decarbonization and decouple production from fossil-based sources.
A July 2022 McKinsey study found that plastic solutions provided lower GHG emissions in 13 of the 14 applications where plastic was compared with alternative materials, such as glass and steel. So, by enabling industry-wide advanced recycling, we can phase out reliance on materials that may be easier to recycle within our current infrastructure but are far more emissions-intensive in the mining process.
Dow’s partnership with Mura Technology is one of example of this and aims to construct multiple global-scale advanced recycling facilities in the United States and Europe. The latest milestone of this partnership is the development of a new advanced recycling facility in Böhlen, Germany — the largest of its kind to date globally. This and the other planned units to be constructed across the US and Europe are expected to collectively add as much as 600 kilotons per annum (KTA) of advanced recycling capacity by 2030, positioning Dow to become the largest consumer of circular feedstock for polyethylene production globally.
As one of the largest polyethylene producers in the world, scale matters; so, when bringing solutions to the market, Dow is focused on addressing the plastic waste challenge at scale. This investment in Mura is an example of a large-capacity tech solution that we believe is scalable. The new facility will enable us to increase its capacity to use recycled plastics as a feedstock to produce new, fully circular products that serve the needs of fast-growing brand-owners, leveraging the most effective technology available to expand the circular business model for plastics.
This partnership is just one facet of the work that will help create a circular economy. You can learn more about how innovation in design, recycling and more come to life here.
Instilling regulatory certainty
The Recycling Partnership — a collaborative nonprofit solving for circularity — refers to the US recycling landscape as “a patchwork of recycling policies, regulations and requirements.” Driving progress within such a disjointed management system can feel like swimming upstream.
This disconnect between intent and execution can be felt down to the consumer level. Research by The Recycling Partnership finds that 83 percent of US consumers view recycling as a valuable public service, but only 59 percent have access to recycling on par with disposal. Establishing a consistent policy approach across the US would allow for greater consistency in collection and processing across the country, a more effective and efficient system and ease of compliance.
We need regulatory certainty for new technologies, including advanced recycling, to give the industry and companies confidence to continue investing and scaling these systems. Federal policy can instill unity and mobilize industry players toward a streamlined pathway for standing up recycling capability.
One such policy proposal was outlined by The Recycling Partnership’s Accelerator policy report and provisions. Dow supports the approach, which incorporates public-private engagement in a tailored method to extended producer responsibility.
So, are we within reach?
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 innovation our industry leaders bring to bear; but this requires a significant commitment of resources that hinge on greater regulatory certainty and acceptance of advanced recycling and mass balance.
Through hybrid solutions, focus on scalability and regulatory engagement, our US recycling system can realize the game-changing moment of which we are on the precipice.
On November 16, Dow and Fast Company will bring together sustainability experts and value chain leaders for the Sustainability Next Summit — which will further unpack the challenges and opportunities in this critical inflection point for circularity. Continue this conversation with leaders from WM, the Resilient Cities Network and Future Innovation Center by registering here.