A future for plastic recycling in which the US will catch up the EU on the mechanical recycling of PET by 2030 and China will ramp up pyrolysis is set out in a new report.
Analysis from Lux Research, a specialist in tech-enabled research and innovation advisory services, highlights emerging technologies for plastics recycling and indicates how they must grow to enable a circular economy. The report, The Sustainable Plastics Roadmap: Recycling, Bio-plastics and Alternatives, considers the adoption of conventional and advanced recycling as well as considering the implications in global regions.
‘In 2030, 15% of plastics will be sustainable, fuelled primarily by a tripling of global plastics recycling along with strong regulatory action that bans key waste generators,’ the report concludes. ‘Chemicals companies will face stagnating demand for oil-derived plastics – even including pyrolysis oil – and must invest in recycling to find growth in the plastics space.’
Lux suggests the US will dramatically expand its mechanical recycling footprint for PET and HDPE as brands respond to consumer demands and government mandates to increase recycling and will catch up with the EU in PET recycling capacity by 2030.
‘Recycling enjoys strong support across the political spectrum as a way to create jobs and stimulate the local economy, leading to relatively favourable regulations even in more conservative states, particularly as chemical industry and even oil and gas players lend their support in the name of cultivating a greener image,’ the report says.
However, it argues that pyrolysis is likely to fail to make an impact in the US despite the support of the chemicals industry. ‘The economics are simply not good: tipping fees in the US are low and the price of oil is similarly low. MRFs simply cannot bear a technique that has higher costs than landfilling, so it’s hard to imagine a switch even with strong desire to reduce landfilling.’
Lux believes the EU’s lead in over the US in mechanical recycling will erode for two reasons. ‘The EU is already pretty good at mechanical recycling, so further gains will be marginal, and its efforts will largely focus on pyrolysis of unrecyclable waste as part of broader energy/chemicals transition.’
The report sees the EU emerging as a leader in pyrolysis, building around eight million tonnes of capacity by 2030. ‘Pyrolysis will be cost-effective as a way to deal with waste thanks to regulations that boost tipping fees – but its value as a feedstock for chemicals remains in question.’ Additionally, it says, the EU must resolve whether or not pyrolysis of plastic waste is recycling and what fraction of pyrolysis oil must be used in plastics for it to count as recycling.
‘There’s also the issue of the long-term role of pyrolysis… Upgraded pyrolysis oil will likely never be cheaper than the cheapest conventional petroleum. The EU needs to decide who will subsidise the production of chemicals from pyrolysis oil and for how long.’
The report also expects China and Japan to ramp up pyrolysis capacity, building 6.2 million and 2.7 million tonnes of capacity, respectively, by 2030. ‘China will maintain its position as the world leader in mechanical recycling, growing to over six million tonnes of PET recycling capacity, depending on the state of waste imports. Japan’s mechanical recycling capacity will only grow marginally, reflecting its far more mature initial state.’
Across the rest of the world Lux sees an expansion of mechanical recycling of PET and HDPE as it is cheap to build, profitable, simple, proven, and can be built at both small and large scales. ‘There will be a substantial expansion of recycling globally, with India, Indonesia, and Brazil leading the way as these economies continue to grow,’ it concludes.
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