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If it’s broken, fix it: how chemical recycling can fix the broken plastics cycle

Chemical recycling can serve as a viable option for plastic manufacturers, but only with the right investments in place.

In brief

  • Chemical recycling will play an important role to increase recycling rates of plastics and compliment mechanical recycling to achieve the circular economy
  • Immediate, mid- and long-term plans for plastic manufacturers should include understanding policy, developing technology and infrastructure

Download the full article - If it’s broken, fix it: how chemical recycling can fix the broken plastics cycle

Can chemical recycling fix the broken plastics cycle?

It’s no secret that plastics are a part of almost everything we do in our lives, and that trend shows no sign of slowing down. US plastic production has been steadily increasing over the last 20 years and is expected to continue to grow 3.5% per year on average.1 Despite this growth, plastic recycling rates have largely leveled off in the US over the past decade, hovering around 9%. The remaining 91% of plastics disposed of by consumers in the US either ends up in landfills or is combusted in waste-to-energy plants.2 Much is being done in the name of protecting the environment and reducing waste, but these efforts are increasingly proving to be futile.

The failure of plastic recycling lies in the fact that current mechanical recycling processes cannot sort various plastic types into a suitable baled product and produce recycled polymers that meet the standards required by brand owners at a competitive price.

Enter chemical recycling.

Current state of chemical recycling production

Chemical recycling is the process of changing the chemical structure of plastic waste so that it is reduced to its basic building blocks. While mechanical recycling weakens the tensile strength of the resulting resin, chemical recycling can turn mixed or even contaminated plastics into pure monomers or polymers that are chemically identical to their virgin resin competitors. The chemical recycling field currently has dozens of technologies, but the three overarching processes of chemical recycling are purification, conversion and depolymerization.

Each technology has its own benefits, downsides and particular plastics for which it is most useful. As a result, it is most helpful to think of these three technologies, along with mechanical recycling, as working in tandem to increase circularity instead of competing against each other. Further, it is generally accepted that, while chemical recycling alone wouldn’t lead to a circular economy for plastics, a circular economy of plastics is difficult to envision without chemical recycling.

Due to the increased potential for greenhouse gas emissions and association with downcycling for conversion technologies, many citizens and organizations have negative perceptions about chemical recycling. However, the status quo of mechanical recycling has led to just a 5% to 6% plastic recycling rate.3 Chemical recycling, despite its shortcomings, has the potential to increase the plastic recycling rate significantly. Overall, as chemical recycling technologies mature and economies of scale are realized, the processing cost for chemical recycling will decrease.

Now, next and beyond

Now (0 to 6 months): Current mechanical recycling capacity is around 60 times larger than chemical recycling and, as a result, needs to be a prime focus for companies trying to make changes now. Plastic manufacturers should take advantage of the significant demand for recycled plastics by investing in pyrolysis technologies that can complement mechanical recycling systems. They should also engage with policymakers to confirm that support for chemical recycling is being heard from the industry perspective.

Next (6 to 18 months): In the medium term, resin manufacturers should look beyond pyrolysis and into depolymerization and purification technologies for their investment strategies. They should start to invest in grassroots facilities and become familiar with the positives and negatives of each emerging chemical recycling technology. They should also look to partner with waste management companies to develop improved municipal solid waste (MSW) infrastructure to secure a steady supply of recycled plastics that may have been previously regarded as landfill.

Beyond (18 months+): The plastic recycling industry in the US is currently at a major crossroads. Over the last decade, the narrative on plastic recycling has been shifted to focus on how ineffective mechanical recycling really is at reusing a majority of the plastics disposed of in the US. Our analysis has shown that chemical recycling can be the missing piece to address this problem over the coming decade, regardless of the price of oil.


Plastic manufacturers must make key decisions to enable chemical recycling, which can potentially address the gaps long exposed in mechanical recycling.

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