Eliminate plastic items
More recyclable formats
Chemical recycling (CR) is the broad term used to describe a range of technologies capable of recycling plastics using chemical processes as opposed to strictly mechanical ones. CR has the potential to process plastics such as mixed rigids, films, multi-material plastics and laminated plastics. CR technologies could therefore effectively complement mechanical recycling (MR) in achieving a circular economy (1). By turning plastic waste back into base chemicals and feedstocks, some types of CR can yield virgin-quality feedstock (as well as oil for use as fuel) that can be suitable for food-grade packaging. To successfully scale CR, users should not overlook the need to secure supply and grow collection.
However, CR technology is still evolving, and available CR content is likely to be in extremely short supply in the near term, if not longer (2). It will likely take a few years before the supply of CR content reaches a scale and consistency that brand owners can rely on for their procurement strategies. For the business model to scale, it is important that the following business case elements are further developed, including:
Clarity on the feedstock and supply sources that CR technology can accept in real-world conditions and still produce high-quality outputs (i.e., types of polymers, level of contamination, material mix);
Validating that the end-to-end CO2 life cycle is beneficial relative to virgin plastic to ease concerns that CR will compromise climate change objectives; and
The yield of plastic-to-plastic CR must be sufficiently high to ensure a compelling recycling narrative exists. If it is too low, then the process may lack credibility as a “recycling” solution.
Applicability to different packaging materials: Depending on the specific type of CR technology used, the resultant feedstock can be virgin quality, potentially implying applicability to almost any plastic packaging format. Thermal conversion effectively produces oil that can be refined into naphtha and used to produce virgin plastic feedstock. The supply of CR is likely to be limited in the near term such that a range of strategies should be pursued to increase recycled content in packaging, including using more mechanically recycled content.
Design for recyclability: While some CR technologies can handle mixed materials, some technologies are sensitive to impurities. Eliminating the use of PVC or PVDC from packaging or from feedstock supplies may be necessary to help advance CR for other polymers for packaging. The development of design guides and commodity bale specifications should go hand in hand with any strategy to advance CR.
CR can be broken down into three fields:
Solvent-based purification is a process through which plastic is dissolved in a solvent, and a series of purification steps are undertaken to separate the polymer from additives and contaminants. The resulting output is the precipitated polymer, which remains unaffected by the process and can be reformulated into plastic. Since solvent-based purification does not change the constitution of the polymer itself, there are ongoing discussions as to whether this technology should be defined as mechanical rather than chemical recycling or as a separate class altogether.
Chemical depolymerization yields either single monomer molecules or shorter fragments, often called oligomers. This process can provide recycled content for PET.
Thermal conversion converts polymers into simpler molecules. Pyrolysis and gasification are the two main types of thermal-conversion processes. The products of pyrolysis or gasification can integrate into existing chemical processing supply chains. These processes can provide recycled content for PP and PE packaging.
Helps recycle hard-to-recycle plastics: CR complements MR in that it could process certain plastic waste streams that MR cannot. More work is needed to evaluate the full potential of CR in processing various types of feedstocks.
Despite these potential benefits, companies need to consider CR content carefully given the unknown factors of cost, availability, yield, and GHG impacts.
Follow an established certification scheme: Certifications are important to ensure the CR product being bought is credible and that any claims made about it are robust, legal, and accurate. Ensure any purchased CR content uses adequate mass balance certification protocols. See, for example, International Sustainability and Carbon Certification PLUS (ISCC PLUS), Roundtable for Sustainable Biomass, or REDCert.
Be sure that chemically recycled plastic is right for your company: The complexities and varieties of CR mean there are many nuances that will determine whether a given form of CR technology is appropriate for your company’s needs and packaging goals. For more research, see:
Eunomia’s review of available information on different CR technologies and assessments of their performance, feasibility, and how they could fit into existing waste management systems.
CEFIC’s study of the GHG emissions associated with CR.
Closed Loop Partners’ investor and partners roadmap for boosting CR capacity.
As described above, more research is needed to fully understand the end-to-end CO2 life cycle, economics, process yields, and feedstock tolerance. In addition, the following items also need consideration and development:
Common accounting: The creation and adoption of a set of rules that codifies the technical details about which plastics can be recycled using CR, and which can be produced using CR-generated feedstock, may assist the growth of CR technologies. For example, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) developed a set of mass balance principles and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was mandated to review existing standards (e.g., Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials [RSB] and the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification PLUS or ISCC+ ) as part of Save Our Seas 2.0 Act. It has been suggested that the NIST review could lead to a standardized methodology.
Legal and regulatory support: Key discussion points that need to be resolved to enable more widespread adoption of CR content in food packaging include a well-developed legal and regulatory framework setting out whether CR facilities producing fuel or other feedstocks such as industrial waxes should be treated as recycling facilities; agreements from regulators that CR content is food safe and can be counted as “recycled content”; and regulations aimed at keeping hazardous contaminants out of the CR stream and/or ensuring they have been fully removed from plastic waste during CR processing, are key discussion points that need to be resolved to enable more widespread adoption of CR content in food packaging.
State-sponsored R&D: Public-sector co-funding could help accelerate R&D partnerships and address the higher risk areas and stages of CR development (e.g., bridging the “valley of death” and coordinating innovation across the whole value chain).
New feedstock collection and cleaning: Successful collection and aggregation of quality feedstocks will be critical to providing the scale needed to run CR facilities. In addition, CR will need to process both postindustrial and postconsumer materials to fully realize a circular economy for packaging. Additional investment will be needed to ensure the full suite of materials to feed CR is collected at a level to support a capital investment (i.e., post-consumer film collection needs more scale).
Collection and logistics: CR plants need large volumes of consistent, economically feasible feedstock to be viable. To process the difficult-to-recycle materials, those items must be segregated and sent to the chemical recycler at relatively low cost and high quality, in turn necessitating widespread logistical planning and growth in local and regional collection networks.
(1) The Consumer Goods Forum Library. (Link)
(2) Kaushik, M., “Is chemical recycling a game changer?,” IHS Markit, August 2019. (Link)
(3) Quantis, “Chemical Recycling: Greenhouse gas emission reduction potential of an emerging waste management route,” October 2020. (Link)
(4) Hann, S., Connock, T., “Chemical Recycling: State of Play,” Eunomia (2020). (Link)
(5) Rollinson, A., Oladejo, J. (2020). Chemical Recycling: Status, Sustainability, and Environmental Impacts. Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, June 2020. (Link)
(6) BASF, “ChemCyclingTM: Environmental Evaluation by Life Cycle Assessment (LCA),” May 2020. (Link)
(7) Closed Loop Partners, “Accelerating circular supply chains for plastics,” January 2021. (Link)
(8) Rethink Plastic, “7 steps to effectively legislate on chemical recycling,” June 2020. (Link)