The news is currently dominated by discussions as to how to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic so its waste does not damage the environment. Recycling plastic waste can also, however, be a way to increase profits. Now is the time for many companies in the chemical industry to take advantage of their waste plastic in new ways.
In 2016, there were 260 million tons of plastic waste produced in just one year and that figure has been growing. With the general public becoming more aware of the dangers of plastic, it has become incumbent on industry – including chemical companies – to find new ways to manage their waste. Analysis of current and changing patterns of waste, including ways to both reduce it and make it profitable, shows that there is huge potential in the recycling of plastic.
One ambitious plan for increasing plastics waste recycling could see a $60 billion increase in profits as well as quadrupling current recycling rates to cover 50% of all the plastics in the world. This would make plastics waste recycling responsible for around two-thirds of the potential growth in profits in the sector up to 2030. As more than a third of plastics and petrochemical firms’ activities relate to plastics production, this would have a major impact.
Even with increasing public awareness, the majority of plastic waste is still either being burned, sent to landfill or just dumped. This means that a massive potential resource is being squandered without consideration. Rather than investing in the high costs and low environmental friendliness of manufacturing plastics from scratch, chemical companies could reduce both their expenditure and their carbon footprint through recycling.
The need to adapt waste disposal methods is becoming essential as many countries seek to tighten laws on the use of plastics. To date, however, there has been a lack of overall foresight and planning in deciding how to manage plastic levels. The inclination is there, now it just needs to be capitalised upon by the industry. This will require collaboration between chemical companies, other industries, regulators and consumers.
First, the latest technology needs to be utilised for plastic recycling, including the development of new technologies. Mechanical recycling has already achieved some success, but monomer recycling and pyrolysis (developing feedstock from plastic) are still in their infancy.
A wider range of plastic types must be recycled. A focus on polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) recycling in mainstream society ignores potential growth in the collection and mechanical recycling of low density polyethylene, which alongside HDPE recycling could offer the largest potential profits.
Some newer forms of plastics recycling do not require the same initial investment or ongoing maintenance as traditional mechanical recycling. This is true of monomer recycling, whilst cracker feedstocks created from pyrolysis could act as a replacement for liquid natural gas or naphtha as well as offering a solution for those products that can no longer be reutilised through mechanical recycling.
As countries and companies both seek to reduce their plastic waste, the potential advantages of plastics recycling are becoming more apparent. With careful thought and long term planning, it should be possible to transform the chemical industry for the benefits of chemical companies and the planet as a whole.