The need for a circular economy has never been so urgent. Plastic consumption is expected to double globally by 2050, creating environmental and human health risks. Not only is plastic waste overflowing in landfills, but a significant portion is mismanaged and leaks into the environment: the OECD estimates that nearly 80 million tonnes of plastic waste was mismanaged globally in 2019. With single-use packaging composing a significant amount of plastic waste generated annually, demand for more circular packaging options is taking off.
The most straightforward method to increase the sustainability of single-use plastic packaging is to increase its recycled content. However, mechanically recycled plastics face challenges in their application in packaging, particularly for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG). Some of the biggest challenges include the degradation of mechanical properties with recycling, which causes recycled plastic to be "downcycled" from packaging to other applications, and contamination, which can make recycled plastic unsuitable for many food-contact applications.
Given these issues, advanced recycling has emerged as a potential solution. The allure of advanced recycling methods, like solvent extraction, pyrolysis, and depolymerization, is that they use thermochemical reactions to allow used plastic waste to be made into "new" virgin plastic, circumventing the issue of downcycling. Additionally, mixed plastics that can be difficult to separate can be processed with advanced recycling methods and converted into plastics suitable for packaging. For these reasons, many view advanced recycling as the future "answer" to sustainable plastic packaging demand. But is this really the case? IDTechEx's latest report, "Sustainable Packaging Market 2023-2033", explores this question and evaluates the real potential of advanced recycling for sustainable packaging applications.
Chemical Recycling and Solvent Extraction: Breaking Down the Key Technologies
Advanced recycling includes two main technology categories: solvent extraction and chemical recycling. Solvent extraction involves selectively dissolving the polymer and subsequently precipitating this to produce the pure polymer; ideally, this is a low-energy process that results in recycled polymers with properties close to that of the virgin polymer.
The concept of chemical recycling is taking an end-of-life plastic back to either its monomeric feedstock or further upstream to raw materials and allowing it to re-enter the value chain at virgin-grade quality, in theory, an infinite number of times. One key emerging chemical recycling technology is depolymerization, which takes a relatively homogeneous feedstock and breaks the material down into its constituent monomers via thermal, chemical, or biological processes. Depolymerization is particularly well-suited towards recycling PET (polyethylene terephthalate), commonly used in packaging applications. Another key process is pyrolysis, which converts mixed plastic waste into pyrolysis oil via thermochemical processes that can then be turned into polymer again. Here, there is the potential to process two of the most popular packaging plastics, PE (polyethylene) and polypropylene (PP), which can be difficult to mechanically recycle.
Given the advantages of advanced recycling methods, it is unsurprising that many chemical suppliers, packaging suppliers, and FMCG giants have increasingly engaged with advanced recycling. IDTechEx notes that all six of the biggest FMCG companies by plastic usage (Coca-Cola, Nestle, Unilever, PepsiCo, Mondelez, Proctor & Gamble) have partnerships and/or investments with different advanced recycling players. Some have already debuted packaging containing chemically-recycled plastic, like Mondelez's Philadelphia Cream Cheese brand, which uses chemically-recycled PP in its tubs.
Chemical recycling will grow, but mechanical recycling remains the dominant source of recycled plastics for sustainable packaging. Source: IDTechEx - "Sustainable Packaging Market 2023-2033"
Advanced Recycling: Looking Past the Excitement
But is advanced recycling really a magic bullet for sustainable packaging? First, the true environmental advantages of advanced recycling (particularly chemical recycling) are still being debated. Many critics of chemical recycling technologies, namely pyrolysis, highlight flaws in lifecycle analyses (LCAs) conducted by chemical recycling players. One is the assumptions underlying LCAs that assume plastic waste would have otherwise been incinerated if not chemically recycled. Depending on the assumptions used, chemical recycling may be less beneficial than virgin plastic production in terms of carbon footprint.
Additionally, the economics of advanced recycling are heavily influenced by the individual process (i.e. yield, feedstock requirements by plastic-type & form, and efficiency at scale), infrastructure, government policy, and macroeconomic trends. These factors will heavily influence the "green premium" of advanced recycled plastics and the subsequent future adoption of such plastics. Given these questions in plant economics, it is unclear whether advanced recycling projects will be able to produce plastics that are financially competitive with virgin plastics.
Lastly, there is the question of building capacity to meet demand. Even if advanced recycling projects address the first two concerns, both critical barriers to overcome, the current capacity for advanced recycling is significantly smaller than that of mechanical recycling. It will take years, if not decades, of investment and expansion for advanced recycling capacity to come close to meeting the demand for sustainable plastic packaging, not to mention the time lag for end-users to consider and then adopt chemically recycled plastics in their products.
Therefore, can advanced recycling really be the "answer" to the rising demand for sustainable plastic packaging? With how significant the challenges that face advanced recycling are, it should not be considered as a magic bullet for the sustainable packaging industry. Even if it reaches its projected installed capacity, it can best be seen as part of the solutions available to increase sustainable packaging. While chemically recycled plastics may prove to help improve sustainability in packaging, the packaging market will be pushed forward by a multitude of solutions, including mechanically recycled plastics, design for recyclability, bioplastics, and designs that minimize plastic use.
IDTechEx Sustainable Packaging Market Forecast
The new IDTechEx report, "Sustainable Packaging Market 2023-2033", carefully segments the market by twenty-one different materials, which are extrapolated in the 10-year forecast to explore each segment's current usage, the potential for growth, and key players. Additionally, IDTechEx provides comprehensive material benchmarking studies, examination of critical application areas, and in-depth market and economic analysis. For further information on this market, including discussion on 95 sustainable packaging start-ups, material benchmarking, and granular 10-year market forecasts, please visit www.IDTechEx.com/SustPackaging.
For further information on the chemical recycling and solvent extraction market, including 10-year market forecasts for major chemical recycling technologies, technology comparison studies, and player activity, please see the IDTechEx report, "Chemical Recycling and Dissolution of Plastics 2023-2033".
For the full portfolio of sustainability research available from IDTechEx, please visit www.IDTechEx.com/reports/Sustainability.