To create a truly circular ecosystem for plastics, we need scalable innovations to close the gap between what consumers can recycle now and which plastics might become a regular part of a future recycling system.
US consumers are ready to recycle more; but current recycling infrastructure is holding them back. According to a 2021 survey by SAP, Qualtrics and the World Economic Forum, 94 percent of US adults support recycling and 74 percent say it should be a priority. However, the country’s current recycling rate is only 35 percent. To create a truly circular ecosystem for plastics, we need scalable innovations to close the gap between what consumers can recycle now and which plastics might become a regular part of the recycling system in the future.
Many companies support this vision and are excited about a future circular economy for plastics, where fewer materials go to waste and instead find new value. Corporate demand for recycled plastic content in packaging is expected to grow nearly 6 percent per year through 2026.
During one of the panel discussions at the November 16 Sustainability Next Summit, hosted by Dow and Fast Company, a circular economy and the role companies can play in improving recycling systems was a focal point. The discussion included Dow Global Sustainability Director Haley Lowry, WM Vice President of Sustainability Tara Hemmer, and Mura Technology Chief Commercial Officer Oliver Borek.
Participants focused on themes that have driven conversations on sustainability in the US and around the world at events such as COP27 and the upcoming World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, including recycling education and solutions, trends in recycling policy, and public attitudes toward the recycling system. Most importantly, the panel highlighted a critical point for everyone to consider: The future of recycling won’t come down to one solution or another — it’s an all-of-the-above effort that will require innovations at every step of the plastics lifecycle.
Here’s how recycling collaborations are set to revolutionize how consumers engage with sustainability in their everyday lives.
Bringing circular solutions together
In the United States, plastic recycling isn’t anywhere close to achieving its full potential — the best still lies ahead. Some of the biggest opportunities are in packaging for goods including food, medicine and personal products we use every day. According to a recent McKinsey & Company study, less than 10 percent of certain plastic packaging materials such as films, bags and food-service items are recycled, mostly due to a lack of curbside recycling options. Through expanded collection, there is an enormous opportunity to recover more of these materials.
But the important work doesn’t stop with infrastructure. If materials-science companies are going to develop recyclable materials and accept more types of plastics, consumers need easy ways to understand how to recycle these materials. WM is taking proactive steps to educate consumers on recycling, including more information about how recycled plastics are used to create new products. These programs are helping close the gap between consumers’ desire to recycle and the ease of inserting plastics into a circular economy.
From aspiration to action: An all-in recycling system
Collaboration across the value chain — between producers and brands, consumers and recyclers, and more — can help us move from aspiration to action on plastic recycling, achieving a world where none of these valuable materials go to waste. Dow and WM are putting this idea into action with their latest collaboration, which will allow consumers to recycle films and flexible plastics — such as bread bags, cling wrap and dry-cleaning bags — directly through their curbside recycling.
Currently, less than 2 percent of US households have access to curbside film and flexibles recycling, which is holding many consumers back from participating. Starting with four pilot cities in the US, the collaboration between Dow and WM will address recycling infrastructure — from curbside collection to sorting and pre-processing — ultimately creating a recycling value chain for flexible plastics and packaging. On top of the circularity benefits, this program provides a distinct economic opportunity for WM and Dow to capitalize on the market demand for recycled plastic content. More than 80 of the largest consumer packaging and retail companies have committed to using packaging that contains at least 15 percent recycled plastic by 2025.
This type of innovation is going global, too. Dow is teaming up with Mura to construct multiple, world-scale, advanced-recycling facilities in the US and Europe — including in Böhlen, Germany, where the largest facility of its kind is under construction. These projects 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.
What’s ahead for circularity
With so many global conferences setting the stage for a more sustainable world, governments, brands and consumers are eagerly watching to see how plastic recycling will be transformed — a feeling our panelists shared during the Summit. They each predicted some of the most impactful developments they see for the next decade:
Haley Lowry: New business models and manufacturing methods will define the future of circularity. Circularity isn’t about just one technology — it’s about how you build the system through a holistic approach.
Tara Hemmer: The stream of recycled materials is going to become much more segmented. We’ll focus on how we can pull materials apart and work with partners to create products that are designed for reuse.
Oliver Borek: Manufacturers, brands and recyclers will work together to integrate new technology into the recycling systems, testing out different ideas to optimize the amount of materials that are recycled.
Want to learn more about the future of sustainability? You can watch the full panel and the rest of the Sustainability Next Summit here.