Can U.S. Industry Kick its Plastic Addiction?

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recycling plastics

The U.S. and many other countries are addicted to plastics, with consumers finding it impossible to move away from a wide variety of plastic products. This inevitably equates to huge quantities of plastic waste. As companies continue to rely heavily on plastics for the production and storage of millions of products, several major companies are assuring consumers that they can rapidly shift away from polluting plastics in favor of recyclable, compostable, and all-around more sustainable plastic products. However, many industry experts doubt the validity of these bold claims as they ask – if a transformation is possible why has it not already happened?

The Current Situation 

Around 36 million tons of plastic is thrown away annually in the U.S., a figure higher than any other country. There are 10 chemical recycling facilities across the country at present, with a total capacity of 456,000 tons of plastic when operating at full capacity – which many are not. The U.S. is falling short when it comes to plastic recycling, with no clear indication of how or when this might change. When consumers throw their waste into the recycling, they expect these products to be recycled. However, without the facilities needed to process all this waste most of it is ending up in landfills. 

A New Way to Recycle 

Several big corporations promise a major shift in the coming years to make their products more sustainable. Companies such as L’Oreal, Nestle, and Proctor & Gamble are promising to reduce the use of plastics and make plastic products that remain more sustainable. Several companies plan to do this by developing innovative “advanced” or “chemical” recycling plants that they believe will be capable of recycling a much wider variety of plastic products. 

Rather than grinding up or melting waste plastic, as is done in conventional recycling practices, new, advanced-recycling methods include breaking down plastics much further, into more basic molecular building blocks, and making them into new plastic. It promises to turn plastic polymers back into their original molecules, using methods such as dissolving with chemicals or heat, to be processed and used again and again. 

Is Advanced Recycling Viable?

Nestlé, L’Oréal, and Procter & Gamble are just some of the major players that are investing in advanced recycling methods, with all three funding PureCycle Technologies to help them achieve their plastics targets. The company runs a $500 million facility in Ironton, Ohio, with a processing capacity of 182 tons of waste polypropylene. PureCycle promises to help companies transform hard-to-recycle products, such as single-use cups, yogurt tubs, and coffee pods. The firm’s CEO, Dustin Olson, stated, “We believe in this technology. We’ve seen it work… We’re making leaps and bounds.”

However, the reality is very different. The plant was set to commence operations in 2020 but PureCycle has faced several hurdles in getting it up and running. There have been technical issues at the facility, shareholder lawsuits, and concerns over the efficacy of the technology. 

Meanwhile, an Agilyx and Americas Styrenics-managed chemical recycling facility in Tigard, Oregon, has been forced to shut down following the loss of millions of dollars. Other plants across the U.S. are underperforming as the technology has not lived up to initial expectations. One plant in Ashley, Indiana fell severely short of its aim to recycle 100,000 tons of plastic annually by 2021, having processed just 2,000 tons in total by late 2023. Fires, oil spills, and worker safety complaints were some of the issues cited at the plant. 

In 2023, a report by Beyond Plastics and the International Pollutants Elimination Network found that several chemical recycling projects have failed in previous decades and these types of operations also produce large quantities of hazardous waste, release toxic air pollution, threaten environmental justice, and contribute to climate change. Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, stated, “For many of the same reasons why traditional recycling of plastics has been an abysmal failure, chemical recycling has also failed for decades. Plastic waste is expensive to collect, sort, and clean, and its variety of different chemicals, colors, and polymers makes it inherently too difficult to be made into new plastic products.” 

A Global Effort 

In June last year, negotiators met in Paris to develop a global plastics treaty. While the plastics industry is pushing for more recycling, other sectoral experts believe this will not solve the global plastics problem. A U.N. Environment Program report published prior to the talks raised concerns about the chemicals found in plastics and the potential for the chemicals to be released during the recycling process. A Greenpeace report showed that toxicity can build up in recycled plastics, either through contamination or as a result of the recycling process itself. 

Plastics manufacturers and several major corporations are optimistic about the potential for advanced recycling technology, believing that it could transform the plastics sector and make products more sustainable. However, several failures at facilities in recent years, coupled with underperformance and concerns over the chemicals used and produced at plants, suggest that advanced recycling may be a pipedream. Whether or not chemical recycling improves, the sector must be strictly regulated to ensure public safety and prevent companies from greenwashing when it comes to their plastic promises.

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Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specializing in Energy and Industry. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK, and is now based in Mexico City.

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