The supply of recycled plastics must be more robust to meet global demand. A mix of mechanical and advanced recycling technologies can provide tangible solutions, create efficiencies and increase scale.
Several recent global convenings — climate COP27 in Egypt; biodiversity COP15 in Montreal; and most recently, the World Economic Forum in Davos — have adjourned with at least one shared takeaway: We must do more to act on climate, and fast.
Plastics have been a key discussion point in many of these important climate conversations. On January 17 in Davos, for example, a panel of speakers including Kristin Hughes — WEF’s Global Plastic Action Partnership director — spoke on the pressing need to end plastic pollution on a global scale. The Global Plastic Action Partnership is driven by the WEF and funded by global brands including Dow, and the governments of the UK and Canada.
These meetings have made clear that creating a circular economy for plastics, in which we transform plastic waste into valuable materials instead of sending it to landfills or waterways, is one vital step toward curbing climate change. Research shows that if we can double circularity, we can reduce climate emissions nearly 40 percent by 2032.
As leaders search for new and better solutions to end plastic waste, they must not lose sight of the valuable solutions already available today. Mechanical recycling, advanced recycling and a combination of the two known as hybrid recycling are all established methods; and I’ve seen that when combined strategically, they can help improve the circularity of plastics significantly.
Circularity’s critical role in meeting demand for recycled products
Experts predict that plastic demand will increase considerably as companies grow their products and innovate to meet the needs of the earth’s growing population, now over 8 billion. Under a business-as-usual scenario, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predicts that demand for plastic is expected to increase from a 2019 level of 460 million tons per year to 1,231 million tons per year by 2060. As demand increases, there will also be greater pressure from customers, investors and regulators for more and more of these products to be derived from recycled plastics as companies move forward with sustainability commitments. According to KPMG’s 2022 global Survey of Sustainability Reporting, 96 percent of the world's top 250 companies report at least some information on sustainability.
However, the supply of recycled plastics must be more robust to meet these demands. Currently, recycled plastics account for only 6 percent of total plastic production globally, according to the OECD. For companies, failing to address the gap could not only mean missing climate targets, but also losing valuable business: One study from Trivium Packaging revealed that 57 percent of all consumers surveyed were less likely to buy products in packaging they considered harmful to the environment.
This is where a mix of mechanical and advanced recycling can provide tangible solutions and a path forward, particularly when used to create efficiencies and increase scale. At Dow, we strongly believe in the value of recycled plastic waste; and we have been investing in and enabling recycling solutions to combine these methods and support our path to net-zero emissions by 2050 and to meet our 2030 Transform the Waste goal.
A suite of recycling solutions
Advanced recycling is one critical element in increasing the supply of post-consumer recycled plastics. Its ability to process hard-to-recycle food- and medical-grade plastic films that would otherwise be incinerated or sent to landfills is key to growing a circular economy. A 2022 report from the City College of New York Grove School of Engineering detailed the analysis of 13 completed lifecycle assessments on advanced recycling processes. The products made from hard-to-recycle materials through advanced-recycling technology had smaller carbon footprints across their lifecycles and helped contribute to plastics circularity.
For Dow, investing in advanced recycling is a part of our broader plan and why we recently expanded the Mura Technologies partnership to build Europe’s largest advanced recycling facility at our current site in Böhlen, Germany. This is part of our goal to build multiple advanced recycling units across Europe and the US, adding as much as 600,000 tons of recycling infrastructure capacity by 2030.
Nonetheless, I believe that relying on advanced recycling alone, as a silver bullet, would be shortsighted. Mechanical recycling still has value that can combine with advanced recycling to lead progress toward circularity. And although advanced recycling currently has a higher carbon footprint than mechanical, the industry is racing to lower it. As markets exist for both mechanically recycled and advanced recycled materials, using both methods where applicable is the best path forward.
In France, Dow has joined forces with Valoregen to build the country’s largest hybrid-recycling site — bringing advanced and mechanical recycling into one processing location. This is how industrial ecosystems are built; and the next step for us is to nurture and scale them to create products that not only fit into the supply chain, but also add value to the circular economy for customers.
In addition to partnerships with Mura and Valoregen, Dow is collaborating with many other like-minded experts to advance circularity. In Brazil, Dow is working with Boomera LAR on ways to transform disposable materials into plastic resins to offer more sustainable options to the packaging industry and, in turn, help companies play a greater role in furthering circularity.
Transforming waste at an accelerated pace
At Dow, our sustainability targets have recently shifted to reflect an increased focus on circularity. In late 2022, we announced that we have accelerated our sustainability targets by expanding what was previously called the Stop the Waste target to the current Transform the Waste target. This underscores our focus on restoring the value of discarded plastics — transforming plastic waste and other alternative feedstock into 3 million metric tons of renewable, circular solutions each year.
To reach our target, we are committed to building industrial ecosystems — including mechanical, advanced and hybrid facilities — to collect, reuse and recycle waste using the most suitable and sustainable methods. While demand for recycled plastics continues to grow, we are focused on scaling our solutions portfolio to meet it.
As leaders around the world discuss solutions to our pressing climate issues, they must keep circularity in focus. I believe that without establishing reliable and scalable ways to reuse material and add value back into the ecosystem, we will continue releasing harmful emissions, miss out on opportunities to transform waste into new sustainable feedstocks for plastics production and not meet our sustainability targets. Strategically investing in recycling infrastructure and industrial ecosystems is critical to circular climate action.