plastic film recycling
Closed Loop says advanced recycling technologies can process a wider range of plastic scrap compared with mechanical recycling methods.
Photo by Recycling Today staff.

Closed Loop studies advanced recycling techniques

Recycling investment fund says chemical, or molecular, recycling methods for plastic can “move the needle” on the material’s recycling rate.

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November 18, 2021

New York-based Closed Loop Partners has released a 171-page report designed to examine the potential role of plastic scrap chemical recycling (also referred to as advanced recycling and molecular recycling) “in a circular and safe future for plastics.”

The report, prepared by Closed Loop’s Center for the Circular Economy and titled “Transitioning to a Circular System for Plastics: Assessing Molecular Recycling Technologies in the United States and Canada,” has as its premise that plastics production in North America is set to triple by 2050.

According to the report, “To move the needle on the 9 percent of plastics currently recycled globally, a suite of solutions must be deployed, first emphasizing reduction and reuse, and also acknowledging the role of recycling in keeping valuable plastics in play for longer and reducing the need for fossil fuel extraction.”

Some producers and users of plastic have increased their investments in mechanical recycling (shredding, washing, extruding and otherwise reprocessing scrap). Some of these same companies also have researched and invested in chemical recycling, which Closed Loop says “refers to a diverse sector, which encompasses dozens of technologies that use solvents, heat, enzymes and even sound waves to purify or transform plastics at the molecular level.”

Closed Loop says the technologies can require more energy than mechanical recycling, but they can process a wider range of plastic scrap, and “their various outputs can be looped back into manufacturing supply chains without compromising quality or being downcycled.”

The investment fund concludes, “Collectively, molecular recycling technologies have the potential to expand the scope of plastics we can recycle, help preserve the value of resources in our economy, and help meet the demand for high-quality, recycled plastics, even food-grade plastic.”

Closed Loops describes its report as an overdue assessment, based on nine systems studied, containing “comparative analysis among the different technologies” and a “systems-level analysis of their potential financial, environmental and human health opportunities and risks.”

The packaging and recycling firms Closed Loop studied were APK AG, PureCycle Technologies, Carbios, GreenMantra, JEPLAN, gr3n, Brightmark, Plastic Energy and Enerkem. It says those firms operate “across the sector’s three molecular recycling technology categories: purification, depolymerization and conversion.”

“Two-thirds of plastics used in the U.S. today are for applications like wind turbines, textiles, car parts and healthcare devices––which are viable feedstock for different advanced recycling technologies,” says Kate Daly, managing director of the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners. “This report should serve as a guide to investors, policymakers, and anyone who cares about the plastic waste crisis and would like to explore what must be true in order for new and established technologies to play a safe and viable role in a circular system for plastics, without creating unintended consequences.”

The Washington-based American Chemistry Council (ACC) is among the trade groups with an early endorsement of the study. “Advanced recycling is transforming the circularity of plastics by increasing the amount and scope of plastics that can be recycled,” comments Joshua Baca, ACC vice president of plastics. “This has the ability to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic waste destined for landfills or leaked into the environment, while also providing significant economic benefits.”

The technology also has its skeptics, including the California-based Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA). That group released a 40-page report last year questioning the financial viability of completed and planned chemical recycling projects. GAIA says its research found that “out of the 37 [chemical recycling] facilities proposed in the U.S. since 2000, only three are currently operational, and none have been proven to successfully recover plastic to make new plastics on a commercial scale.”

According to Closed Loop, its report includes more than 100 questions to supplement an investor’s due diligence of molecular recycling technologies, as well as links to the nine case studies. The entire 171-page report can be downloaded from this web page.