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Recycled plastic: a fairy tale that needs to come true

Once upon a time plastic was a miracle packaging material; strong, light, cheap and with good barrier properties. Last month, as more photos of waste plastic polluting the ocean were circulating on social media, big consumer brands were committing to be more responsible in their use of plastic packaging.

MARS, M&S, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever, and Werner & Mertz pledged to use 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 at the latest. This is a step in the right direction, but we aren’t going to reduce the plastic in the ocean unless brands commit to buying actual recycled plastic, rather than just ‘recyclable’. Procter & Gamble is taking a different approach, which does start to create a demand for recycled plastic.  They have chosen the iconic Fairy Liquid for the launch of a new Ocean Plastic bottle made from 10% ocean plastic and 90% post-consumer recycled plastic.

The other important news is that China announced a while ago that it will stop importing some waste plastic from the end of 2017. China imported 7.3 million tonnes of waste plastics last year, taking in over half the world’s leftover plastic. This gives us another reason to act, or our landfill will fill up faster than ever. European regulators are already discussing measures to divert waste away from landfill and increase recycling: publication of a plastics strategy is promised for December.

The strategy needs to embrace a range of solutions because there are many types of plastic and some can only be recycled a limited number of times before becoming degraded. Even if there is a big investment in sorting of post consumer waste, and recycling of individual plastic types, we will still need a solution for plastic at the end of its life and mixed plastic which can’t be separated.

There are technologies under development that convert most types of waste plastic to transport fuel. But we really need to recycle this plastic back to the small building blocks of the chemicals industry like ethylene and propylene. This type of processing is known as chemical recycling. The products from chemical recycling will be fed back into existing petrochemical processes. This may be a closed-loop arrangement where they are converted back to the same plastic from which they came. Alternatively they could end up in a range of products, not necessarily all plastics. 

An announcement on closed loop chemical recycling was made recently by Agilyx. They are collaborating with INEOS to depolymerize post-consumer polystyrene waste back to styrene monomer, which can be repolymerised back to polystyrene.  Indaver, a waste company, is investing in new technology  which will also depolymerise  plastics into shorter hydrocarbon molecules with a range of uses. 

 These technologies can bring end-of-life plastics back into the petrochemical industry to replace virgin feedstock from oil and keep waste plastic out of the environment.  If the industry can work with regulators to ensure a good supply and favourable market conditions for recycled plastics, it won’t be just Fairy Liquid bottles that have the ‘happy ever after’ ending. 

Research by Grace Martin

Published: 8 November 17

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