INSIGHT: How the US can achieve high plastic recycling rates

Author: Prashanth Sabbineni


HOUSTON (ICIS)--Recycling to use our planet's resources more efficiently is an important goal and the role of chemical recycling will be critical in achieving high degrees of plastics circularity.

Chemical recycling is essential to meet ambitious recycling targets, such as the US National Recycling Goal to increase the nation's recycling rates to 50% by 2030.

Chemical recycling is attractive for recycling plastic wastes that are traditionally non-recyclable to produce virgin-like feedstock. The technology is a sustainable option that significantly reduces landfilling or combusting plastic waste by converting them into new virgin feedstocks that can be used to make new plastics, chemicals, waxes and transportation fuels.

In addition, chemical recycling technologies can use feedstocks that are unsuitable for mechanical recycling to produce high-quality materials equivalent to those produced from virgin resources. These can be used in food contact and pharmaceutical applications. Mechanically recycled plastic can also be used for food packaging, but these uses are subject to food safety certifications. Chemically recycled materials would not require those additional certifications.

Only 12% of plastics were recycled in the US in 2020, while the rest were landfilled, incinerated or exported. Chemical recycling can support higher recycling rates and help brand owners reach their recycled plastic content commitments, while adding an element of sustainability to other fossil-sourced products.

Under status quo, a recycling rate of only 16% in packaging can be achieved with mechanical recycling by 2040, based on studies by ICIS Consulting. A combination of chemical and mechanical recycling can achieve 30% recycled content in plastics packaging by 2030 and 40% recycled content in plastics packaging by 2040. Recognising the essential role chemical recycling plays in creating new markets for used plastics, governmental policies should consider chemical recycling in their frameworks.

Plastics play an important role in modern living. Their versatility and performance benefits have enabled wide acceptance of plastics in packaging, building and construction, consumer goods, automotive, electrical and electronics, as well as agriculture.

Packaging comprises one of the largest consuming sectors of plastics, which is where our study is focused. According to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), nearly 42% of the large commodity plastics are used in flexible and rigid packaging that are used for food and non-food applications. These include polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polystyrene (PS), expandable polystyrene (EPS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Much of the packaging materials end up as plastic waste due to the lack of collection and sorting systems, which reduces end-of-life options for packaging, thus creating a waste management challenge. Recycling is the key that enables plastic to find an end-of-life solution that avoids landfills or incineration.

ICIS Consulting analysed the plastic waste generated by flexible and rigid packaging that consume high-density PE (HDPE), low-density PE/linear low-density PE (LDPE/LLDPE), PP, PET, PS, EPS and PVC and assessed their current and potential recyclability.

ICIS estimates that nearly 32.722m tonnes of plastic waste were generated in the US in 2020. Of the total plastic waste generated, ICIS estimates that only about 19% was collected for recycling. According to the ICIS Recycle Supply Tracker – Mechanical database (which includes PET, PE and PP only), only 12% was mechanically recycled. This leaves 88% of the plastic waste generated that was either not collected or collected but rejected, thus landfilled, incinerated or exported. In both cases, this leaves a significant opportunity for increasing recycle rates.

ICIS estimates that the current installed capacity of mechanical recyclers in the US stands at 6.717m tonnes for PE, PP, PET, PS, EPS and PVC. As plastics consumption and subsequently waste generation grows, higher capacity will be needed to achieve higher recycling rates. However, insufficient feedstock due to the lack of a robust plastic waste collection infrastructure to provide consistent and low-contaminated feedstock adds another layer of challenge in achieving higher recycling rates.

Moreover, not all plastic waste collected can be mechanically recycled due to technical and/or economic limitations. Each time plastics are heated up during processing or mechanical recycling, their quality is reduced by thermal degradation. Measurable loss of physical properties or performance can occur with repeated recycling of higher recycled content levels. That ceiling recycling rate will vary based on the polymer, the temperatures at which it was processed/recycled and the requirements of the end-use application.

While large, clean, homogenous plastic items can be cost-effective to recycle, small, mixed and contaminated plastic articles are not. Although collected, recyclers may reject plastic waste due to contamination with food, hazardous materials, cross-contamination with other polymers and a range of other reasons. In addition, many types of plastic packaging are multilayered, with each layer adding specific performance criteria, like an oxygen barrier that preserves freshness. This layered or mixed material is not practical for mechanical recycling, but can be chemically recycled. Chemical recycling enables the processing of contaminated and mixed plastic waste, which would otherwise end up in landfills or incinerators.

Considering the increasing consumer demand for recycled plastics, ICIS Consulting further analysed the current status of mechanical recycling and the forecast mechanically and chemically recycled volumes needed to meet demand under different hypothetical national minimum recycled content scenarios. Data presented represents packaging only and pertains to HDPE, LDPE/LLDPE, PP, PET, PS, EPS and PVC.

In Scenario 1, at status quo, ICIS grouped packaging demand into flexible and rigid categories and forecast the growth of these streams under current market drivers and presented it in Table 1 below.

Under current market drivers for recycled content in packaging, the increase in recycling is largely dependent on the growth of recycling capacity as driven by brand owners’ demand. The current installed mechanical recycling capacity in the US stands at 6.717m tonnes against 16.899m tonnes consumed in packaging in 2020, leaving a wide opportunity for recycling growth. In this scenario, the plastics recycling rate is expected to reach a modest 16% in 2040.

Scenario 1 2020 2025 2030 2035 2040
Rigid plastic non-food/pharma packaging containers 2,697 2,991 3,233 3,431 3,612
Food/pharma rigid packaging and containers 6,801 7,693 8,287 8,748 9,200
Plastic carryout bags, non-food contact packaging 4,878 5,392 5,813 6,163 6,484
Food/pharma plastic film and flexible packaging 2,524 2,709 2,853 2,960 3,072
Total Packaging Demand 16,899 18,785 20,186 21,302 22,368
Packaging Market Growth, CAGR - 2.10% 1.40% 1.10% 1.00%
Polymers Total Demand (all end-uses) 28,769 32,184 34,625 36,710 38,733
Total Recyclate (all end-uses) Output-ICIS estimate 3,567 4,102 4,657 5,301 6,077
Recyclate Share of Total Demand 12% 13% 13% 14% 16%

Table 1: Forecast of Plastics Recyclate in Packaging – Scenario 1. Data in thousands of tonnes.
Source: ICIS Supply & Demand Database, ICIS Recycle Supply Tracker - Mechanical

The mechanical recyclate output presented in the Table 1 may be used for other end uses as well as packaging.

Several brand owners have committed to using 25-30% minimum recycled content in their packaging by 2025 and California has mandated manufacturers to include an annual average of 25% of post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR) in beverage containers by 2025. A few other states have similar bills underway. This forms the basis of Scenario 2. It assumes a nationwide requirement for all packaging as opposed to 50 different state requirements, starting with 25% of recycled content by 2025 and increasing by 5% every five years to 2040. To achieve this goal, ICIS Consulting has determined that chemical recycling will be needed to meet the demand.

Scenario 2
PACKAGING MARKET 2025 2030 2035 2040
Rigid plastic non-food/pharma packaging containers 2,991 3,233 3,431 3,612
Minimum recycle content required 25% 30% 35% 40%
Minimum recycled resin required 748 970 1,201 1,445
Food/pharma rigid packaging and containers 7,693 8,287 8,748 9,200
Minimum recycle content required 25% 30% 35% 40%
Minimum recycled resin required 1,923 2,486 3,062 3,680
Plastic carryout bags, non-food contact packaging 5,392 5,813 6,163 6,484
Minimum recycle content required 25% 30% 35% 40%
Minimum recycled resin required 1,348 1,744 2,157 2,594
Food/pharma plastic film and flexible packaging 2,709 2,853 2,960 3,072
Minimum recycle content required 25% 30% 35% 40%
Minimum recycled resin required 677 856 1,036 1,229
Minimum required recycled resin in packaging 4,696 6,056 7,456 8,947
Forecast of mechanical recyclate production 4,102 4,657 5,301 6,077
Chemical recycling production needed to meet minimum content 594 1,399 2,155 2,870

Table 2: Forecast of Plastics Recyclate in Packaging – Scenario 2. Data in thousands of tonnes.
Source: ICIS Supply & Demand Database

The mechanical recyclate production presented in the Table 2 assumes all of it is used for packaging. However, recycled material may be used for all end uses, indicating higher mechanical recyclate production and capacity are needed to meet the minimum recycled content requirement. Chemical recycling can help close the capacity deficit to meet the expected demand for recycled plastics.

In the US, the federal definition of recycling currently does not consider chemical recycling, although an increasing number of individual states consider chemically recycled materials as recycled. As the data under Scenario 2 suggests, mechanical recycling production will not be sufficient to fulfil the requirement and chemical recycling will be needed to meet the minimum required recycled resin content in packaging. This presents the need to include chemical recycling under recycling.

Chemical recycling has the potential to contribute to a robust circular economy by supporting higher plastic recycling rates, reducing strain on the use of fossil fuels. While there are studies underway to determine the impact of chemical recycling on carbon emissions, chemical recycling does emit less carbon dioxide (CO2) than incineration. Chemical recycling is not a fully mature industry and will likely see improvements in the near future. Major investments are needed in building production-scale chemical recycling plants. The success of the technology depends on improving collection and sorting mechanisms. It is not guaranteed that chemical recycling will provide the solution to meeting recycling targets by 2025. Uncertainties exist around the timeframe for scale, the quality of waste inputs, the costs of chemically recycled products and the environmental footprint. Nevertheless, chemical recycling can complement mechanical recycling to achieve large-scale plastics circularity in the longer term.

By Prashanth Sabbineni, James Ray and Paula Leardini