We believe that the solution to stopping plastic waste is understanding that the material is too valuable to be lost in landfills. We can change what is traditionally considered waste and transform it into a valuable, sustainable resource through advanced recycling.
If you ask the average American what advanced recycling is, chances are they won’t know the answer. Most people’s understanding of recycling stems from that one lesson they had in elementary school — the reduce, reuse, recycle refrain — and that’s it. This lack of understanding results in widespread, incorrect use of the service — as people don’t know what can be recycled and how to recycle it. In fact, a recent survey of 2,000 US consumers revealed that 62 percent of people felt a lack of knowledge was causing them to recycle incorrectly.
For a non-technical brand leader, the ability to explain what your company is doing to limit waste is critical to meeting mounting consumer expectations around sustainability. As the world watches for action on sustainability following COP26, companies should seize the opportunity to educate their customers and showcase the steps they are taking to limit waste, increase circularity and use more recycled content in products and packaging.
First things first: What is advanced recycling?
That ubiquitous elementary school lesson on recycling generally dealt with traditional or mechanical recycling. Mechanical recycling for plastics involves sorting items by plastic type, washing them, grinding and melting them down, and re-granulating and compounding the material to replace “virgin” plastics in the production of new products — such as yarn, fibers and building materials. This form of recycling is incredibly important and greatly reduces the environmental footprint of product manufacturing. That said, it can only be used for specific kinds of plastic, leaving many products at risk of being wasted and dumped into landfills or the environment if it is not paired with other recycling processes.
Advanced recycling, which in many ways picks up where traditional recycling leaves off, is a process that can be used for virtually all plastics. In a more technical sense, advanced recycling — also called feedstock or chemical recycling — works by breaking down plastic through pyrolysis-based heating (thermal heating in the absence of oxygen) into its original molecules to rebuild them into new products. Advanced recycling can also capture hard-to-recycle plastics that don’t work within the traditional, mechanical recycling streams — such as plastic films and packaging — and can be repeated over and over again for some materials.
At Dow, we like to use an analogy to help people unfamiliar with the process understand it:
Think about a Lego castle that’s made up of all different colors, shapes and designs that you want to break down and rebuild into a new creation. If you were to use traditional, mechanical recycling, you could only break down Legos of the same shape and color — yellow, square Legos with yellow, square Legos, or #1 PET plastic with other #1 PET plastic products — limiting your ability to reimagine, reuse or recreate. But if you used advanced recycling instead, you could break down the castle and use any kind of Lego — regardless of style, design or color — and rebuild however you want.
With these advanced technologies, we can break down structures of multiple types of plastics to their original molecules that can be reused many times over without traditional recycling’s deterioration in quality, thereby decreasing waste and environmental footprint of all kinds of products. Optimizing the existing mechanical-recycling system alongside an expansion of advanced recycling is key to achieving the goal of recycling, or recovering, 100 percent of used plastic packaging in the US by 2040.
Dollars and sense: The economic benefits of advanced recycling
A common and understandable response to the global plastic waste crisis is “why don’t we just stop making and using plastic?” While there are some products that could be made using less plastic, in general people underestimate how important plastic is and what a groundbreaking innovation it was for human progress. Plastic keeps food fresh for longer and medical equipment sterile, and reduces weight in transportation, saving fuel and reducing emissions.
At Dow, we believe that the solution to stopping plastic waste is understanding that the material is too valuable to be lost in landfills. And the numbers back this up: If recycled and repurposed through a circular economy, the value of these recycled plastics would top $100 billion per year. Yet, according to the World Economic Forum, 95 percent of the value of plastic packaging material is lost to the economy due to linear supply chains and continued reliance on traditional, mechanical-recycling systems. We can change what is traditionally considered waste and transform it into a valuable, sustainable resource through advanced recycling.
Innovation takes time and investment. That’s why Dow and partners, such as Mura and Fuenix, are investing heavily in scaling advanced-recycling infrastructure and technology. While advanced recycling is not yet widely available, as more brands invest in new products backed by advanced recycling — such as Estée Lauder’s announcement that its Origins Clear Improvement tube will be 100 percent recycled — the more material science players such as Dow can get recycled materials to market.
Showing clear progress on sustainability goals is also central to appealing to consumers: Recent BCG research shows that nearly 95 percent of people believe that their personal actions could help reduce unsustainable waste, tackle climate change and protect wildlife and biodiversity. The data is clear: For companies and brands trying to limit their environmental footprint and meet their zero-waste commitments, investing in advanced recycling is a safe bet.
Looking to the future
As we close out a powerful year for sustainability commitments, brands should consider how innovative technologies can scale plastic waste reduction while still providing consumers with the safe, sterile products they need and love. Watch for what’s happening with advanced recycling on Dow’s Science and Sustainability page.