Challenges and opportunities of advanced recycling

Stakeholders across the supply chain discussed ways advanced recycling technologies can help brands to meet recycled-content goals during Clemson’s Food, Packaging & Sustainability Summit.

March 1, 2021

In recent years, more brands have announced commitments to use recycled content in their plastic products and packaging as a way to advance the circular economy. Traditional mechanical recycling methods are commonly used to secure the postconsumer resin (PCR) needed for these products and packaging, but with that method, contamination can be an issue for some types of packaging.

Clemson University’s Food, Packaging & Sustainability Summit, co-hosted by Hartsville, South Carolina-based Sonoco, was Feb. 26. Several stakeholders discussed how advanced recycling technologies (also known as chemical recycling) can serve as an alternative solution to mechanical recycling to help meet brand owners’ recycled content goals in a session called Advanced Recycling Practices: What the Future Holds. The session featured speakers from across the supply chain, including Prapti Muhuri of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Linda Roman of Kraft Heinz Co., Ross Sloane of Braven Environmental and Julie Zaniewski of Dow. Panelists discussed challenges and opportunities related to advanced recycling.

Muhuri said there are three types of advanced recycling technologies: conversion, depolymerization and purification. She said conversion technology breaks plastics into their original components; depolymerization breaks plastics down to partial or original building blocks; and purification technology involves a solvent that dissolves plastic to put them into new product applications. Pyrolysis, she added, falls into the category of conversion technology.

Since China implemented its National Sword policy in 2018, she said, about $5 billion have been invested globally in plastics recycling, with 80 percent of these investments focused on chemical recycling.

“Advanced recycling is a complementary approach to mechanical recycling to help us meet demand for recycled resin,” Muhuri said. “Advanced recycling enables the recycling of a wider range of plastics. It creates the same properties as virgin materials that can be used in direct food-contact applications. We’re seeing brand owners committing to increasing the use of recycled content in products and packaging. So, with advanced recycling, it’s poised to play a key role in enabling that transition to using more recycled content in the marketplace.”

Roman of Kraft Heinz said her company has a goal to make 100 percent of its packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, which includes increasing its use of recycled content. She said part of that means considering advanced recycling technologies to secure PCR.

“Where we want to evolve is to take complex materials like flexible films and put those back into our packages through technologies such as advanced recycling,” Roman said. “We’ve connected with Sonoco to explore opportunities in advanced recycling technologies to help us do that.”

Kraft Heinz recently announced that it completed a pilot project that demonstrates the use of roof board made from recycled flexible packaging, which was made possible through the company’s participation in Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF), a nonprofit research collaborative that is working to prove technical and economic feasibility to collect, sort, bale and recycle flexible plastic packaging.

Zaniewski of Dow and Sloane of Braven agreed there’s no “deficit” of challenges related to scaling up advanced recycling as a solution to secure PCR. They said “education” is one of the main challenges—making sure municipalities understand what can be recycled.

Infrastructure is another issue, Zaniewski said.

“It’s a challenge to ensure materials are considered as recyclable as well as making sure that there is access for materials to get to those locations,” she said. “That whole infrastructure and links of the value chain to make sure someone in the home knows they are able to recycle it, then linking those pieces in the supply chain and making sure there is enough of that material to scale up to end market needs."

She continued, “Another aspect that’s challenging is making sure, geographically speaking, that providers can get materials in an economic fashion. The U.S. is big, physically, so making sure these materials can get to the likes of Braven.”

Redefining advanced recycling as manufacturing rather than solid waste management is another challenge the industry is hoping to overcome, Muhuri said. She noted that at least nine states have passed laws to redefine advanced recycling as manufacturing so far.

“This makes it easier for companies to hit the ground running, build facilities and expand,” she said of this legislation. “Manufacturing business like advanced recycling technology should not be subject to the same regulations as solid waste incinerators. By passing these types of legislation, we eliminate a roadblock for these companies to get to commercialization scale.”

Roman added that another hurdle that needs to be overcome related to advanced recycling is traceability of materials.

“We need to make sure when we specify recycled content within that package that there’s traceability to trace it back and make sure it’s indeed made from recycled content, especially with advanced recycling where it’s similar to virgin materials versus mechanical recycling methods,” she said.

Muhuri of the ACC said third-party certification, such as ISCC-PLUS (International Sustainability and Carbon Certification, which is based in Germany), are helping in this area.

“We have seen companies across the value chain are certifying with third-party standards like ISCC-PLUS to show that the recycled content they are putting in end products coming from advanced recycling has gone through steps to be certified,” she said. “In the U.S., the adoption of certification is a bit low, but we are seeing momentum growing in recent years.”

Zaniewski added that there’s not going to be a “silver bullet” that will help brand owners meet their goals of incorporating more recycled content. She said she thinks the key for brand owners will be having a suite of partners and solutions to pull everything together. “I think the more we have different partners in place and we’re less siloed will help to create a stronger value chain going forward.”