Plastics recyclers, end-markets must align to make circular economy a reality

Author: Adam Yanelli

2021/04/08

HOUSTON (ICIS)--Mechanical and chemical recyclers of plastics need to align with end markets to enable the circular economy to become a reality, panellists said during the 16th annual Plastics Recycling Conference and Trade Show, held virtually this year because of the pandemic.

Major chemical companies have shown their commitments to reaching sustainability goals by investing in recycling operations and developing new and innovative products, and a panel comprised of plastic producers and recyclers shared their views on how the industry is working toward realising a circular economy.

Holli Alexander, strategic initiatives manager, global sustainability at Eastman Chemical, said that her company is working to improve the infrastructure in the recycling space.

“We recognise that in advanced recycling, or molecular recycling, there is an opportunity to be very compatible and complementary with mechanical recycling,” she said. “We all need more materials to recycle, so we are looking at what we can do collectively to work on infrastructure together to create the feed streams that work for all of us.”

Jaime Camara, CEO of PetStar, a Mexican mechanical recycling company with a fully integrated bottle-to-bottle operation based in Mexico City, said that mechanical recycling works and should not be seen as competing with advanced recyclers.

“This is viable – it can be done,” he said. “It is reliable – we have been doing this very consistently for a long period of time. And it can be done with high standards.”

The challenge, he said, is how to convert the current, available feedstock at a high scale.

Camara said whether you are talking about advance or chemical recycling, “we will all need to have a systemic approach to the challenge”.

Hyejin Kim, ICIS analyst, Plastic Recycling, The Americas, said that chemical recycling has gained momentum in development thanks to growing demand as the industry overall is putting forward sustainability goals.

She said that the current issue of sourcing a steady stream of feedstocks has some in the industry worried about competition for that material.

“But the US plastics recycling rate was at about 9% in 2018, according to EPA, and has been stagnant,” she said. “Therefore, improving the rates collectively would support unlocking supply.”

Matthew Marks, senior sustainability specialist at SABIC, said his company is using a design-to-recyclability model where they work with customers to improve their designs to make them more recyclable at the end of their useful life.

Camara agreed, saying that building out end markets are vital to the successful transition to a circular economy.

Click here to see the impact of packaging on the petrochemical industry on the ICIS Packaging Topic Page

Click here to see regulatory targets and a list of chemical and mechanical recyclers on the ICIS Circular Economy Topic Page