News Release

More investment needed in U.S. chemical recycling technology to achieve circular economy

A recent push for more investment in chemical recycling in the U.S. would allow recycled material to return to the value chain at the same level from which it started.

However, according to Wood Mackenzie Chemicals, multi-pronged investment efforts are required to improve comprehensive collection, sorting and recycle process technology in order to achieve a truly circular economy.

"The circular economy is now a buzzword driving public policy agendas and corporate strategy groups. With increased consumer awareness and the reality of more stringent political regulation around the corner, manufacturers, brands, and retailers are all pushing for innovation in recycled plastics. A number of large corporates have already made public commitments to diversify away from single-use plastics in the coming years. Additionally, Styrofoam - a brand of closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam - bans have been gaining increasing media attention over the past couple of years as states, cities and municipalities are making it a key component of their sustainability and environmental policy," said Wood Mackenzie Chemicals research analyst, Shruthi Vangipuram.

According to Wood Mackenzie Chemicals, the polystyrene industry is relatively small - at approximately 15 million tonnes (Mt) of consumption, compared to other polymers such as polypropylene (75Mt) and polyethylene (100 Mt). Unlike polystyrene, polyethylene and polypropylene markets show robust growth rates of 3-4% per annum.

"While opting to ban a material does propel manufacturers and consumers to actively think of alternatives, simply banning polystyrene will have minimal impact. This is due to its small market share and also because the substitute product may, in fact, be worse for the environment. Take, for example, a paper cup. While paper is recyclable, the paper cup is coated on the inside with low-density polyethylene. As such, combining paper with plastic does improve its functional properties, however it does make it incredibly difficult to recycle. With this in mind, bans and polymer substitutions aren't the ideal solution to achieve circular economy targets on the zero-waste goal.

"Historically, the issue with recycled products has been the fact they, more often than not, come back at a lower value than their original use - which has significant implications for applications such as food packaging. While chemical recycling has been suggested as a way to combat this issue, accessibility of such chemical technology is extremely limited and is still in its early stages," added Ms. Vangipuram.

According to Wood Mackenzie Chemicals, a wave of investments have recently been made in chemical recycling at the manufacturing level. Americas Styrenics and Agilyx launched a joint venture earlier this year to recycle post-consumer polystyrene back to new polystyrene products at the same level from which they began. This effectively eliminates access to end-use markets as an obstacle and significantly expands the economic reach of recycling. Further activity in the sector - coming from companies such as INEOS Styrolution, Green Mantra, ReVital Polymers and Pyrowave, also includes the deployment of depolymerisation technology.

“It’s encouraging to see investments taking place. However, in order to really transform the recycling industry, more funding will need to be concentrated into areas that help to develop chemical recycling technologies suitable for mass-adoption,” said Ms. Vangipuram.