Plastic is a valuable material, playing an important role in helping meet many of society’s most urgent challenges and needs. Plastics are, for example, used to make critical components in life-saving medical products. They help facilitate the safe distribution and preservation of food, help reduce the weight of cars to improve fuel efficiency, and help enable lower-emission technologies such as electric vehicles, solar panels, and wind turbine blades.
Plastics have value throughout the lifecycle, yet today far too much plastic is neither recycled nor re-used. For example, it is estimated that in Europe only around 35% of used plastic was sent for recycling in 2020. Increasing plastic recycling rates in our communities and supporting technologies that enable a broader range of plastics to be recycled is vital if society is to increase circularity.
Mechanical recycling is the traditional process that cuts up used plastic to create new products. Expanding mechanical recycling wherever practical is important, but it is not a complete solution. Each time plastic is mechanically recycled it degrades and becomes less durable, limiting the number of times it can be recycled. It is also more challenging to mechanically recycle products that contain different types of plastic or products with food waste or sticky labels.
By contrast, advanced recycling involves breaking down plastic to its molecular building blocks, transforming it into raw materials that can be used to make virgin-quality, certified circular plastic and other valuable products. The chemical process helps remove contaminants and can accommodate mixed, multi-layer plastics. In addition, there are no evident technical limitations on how many times a plastic product can go through the advanced recycling process.
While mechanical recycling is an efficient method to handle certain materials, advanced recycling can complement it by capturing value from a broader range of plastics, from motor oil bottles to potato chip bags and bubble wrap. These plastics can then be turned back into raw materials that can be used in a range of products that make modern life possible, including high-performance food packaging, greenhouse films, medical syringes, and baby diapers.
Deployed together, mechanical recycling and advanced recycling could enable a greater volume and broader range of plastic waste to berecycled. The European Council has encouraged EU members states ‘to support pilot projects and the upscaling of emerging innovative technologies such as advanced mechanical or chemical recycling of plastics, while ensuring that these reduce overall environmental impacts in a life-cycle perspective’.
With a combination of advanced recycling and mechanical recycling, society can make recycled plastic more versatile and valuable and enable a more circular economy.