BOULDER, COLO. — The current plastics recycling infrastructure is limited to the United States and Canada. This poses problems for CPG products like pet food and treats, traditionally sold in multi-laminate films that make recycling difficult, if not impossible. However, a sustainability push is changing that as more companies in this industry and others commit to adopting more environmentally friendly packaging options now and in the future. to come up.
At the Pet Sustainability Coalition’s (PSC) UnPacked22 virtual packaging event in late February, three packaging experts spoke about three different approaches: recyclable packaging, refillable packaging and compostable packaging.
Paula Luu is Senior Project Director at the Center for the Circular Economy, an innovation hub of Closed Loop Partners. The Center for the Circular Economy works with Fortune 100 companies to find circular solutions and reduce supply chain bottlenecks for packaging materials. These priorities have been the focus of the Center’s research and development on molecular recycling over the past three years, Luu explained.
What is Molecular Recycling?
Molecular recycling is also known as chemical recycling or advanced recycling, Luu explained. The process uses various technologies to break down plastic waste into chemicals, according to Closed Loop Partners’ November 2021 report, “Transitioning to a Circular System for Plastics: Assessing Molecular Recycling Technologies in the United States and Canada.”
Explaining molecular recycling, Luu said, “It’s not a monolith. It’s really a diverse set of technologies that harness either solvents, or heat, or enzymes, or even sound waves, to purify and break down different types of plastic waste.
“There are three types of technologies in the sector: purification, which produces polymers; depolymerization, which produces monomers; and conversion technologies, which produce hydrocarbons like naphtha, diesel or paraffin waxes,” she continued. “Each of these technology categories typically uses different types of inputs and creates a diverse set of outputs.”
This advanced recycling approach is relatively new, compared to more traditional mechanical recycling, but could play an important role in improving the circularity of plastic in the United States and Canada, according to research from Closed Loop Partners.
“When we started to study the gap between supply and demand for high-quality resins, we discovered that mechanical recycling alone was unlikely to close this gap,” Luu said. “The main difference between molecular recycling and mechanical recycling is that because it works at the molecular level, [molecular recycling] thermodynamically resets power across various types of tech platforms, as we’ve discussed, and it allows the polymer to stay at its highest value. In other words, it is focused solely on creating virgin type polymers, and we can add different colors and additives to meet functional performance, and it is uniquely positioned to support mechanical recycling and bridge this gap between demand and demand. high quality offer. resins”.
The company’s research has focused on the environmental impacts of molecular recycling versus mechanical recycling, including in terms of energy use, water use and carbon dioxide emissions. Compared to virgin plastic systems, molecular recycling technologies typically consume less energy, emit less carbon dioxide, and use less water in their processes per plastic pellet produced. The report indicates that the use of renewable energy could amplify these natural resource savings. The problem? Each molecular recycling technology creates a different type of plastic resin from each other and mechanical recycling streams.
“Bringing the two systems together – mechanical and molecular recycling – is what will be the most strategic way to decarbonize our plastics economy,” said Paula Luu, Closed Loop Partners.
“Combining the two systems – mechanical and molecular recycling – is what will be the most strategic way to decarbonize our plastic economy, while creating the recycled plastic supplies the market needs today,” Luu explained. .
The financial aspect of the equation was also taken into account. Luu said that through research by Closed Loop Partners, it has been determined that there are viable investment opportunities for each category of molecular recycling. High variability was observed for depolymerization, but the 2021 market prices of polymers, monomers and hydrocarbon products created through molecular recycling technologies generated strong return on investment and expected IRR, according to the report.
“Understanding the industry’s ability to engineer new commodity prices, based on the value proposition of a sustainable economy, is going to be really critical for its financial success in the market and for investors looking to scale those technology,” she said. .
A mixed approach
The research burden is to develop a better understanding of our current recycling streams, plastic supply and demand, and how emerging recycling technologies like molecular recycling can improve the recycling rate of plastics. packaging in the United States and Canada. According to Closed Loop Partners, the current recycling rate for both countries is 18%. Overall, the recycling rate is around 9%.
In order to achieve a 30% recycling rate in the United States and Canada, advanced recycling methods must be scaled, invested in, and innovated, and a combination of traditional and advanced technologies must be employed. This mixed technology approach – using mechanical recycling methods alongside purification, depolymerization and conversion solutions – is environmentally optimal and could double the amount of plastic packaging recycled today, generating up to ‘at $970 million a year,’ Luu said.
“There’s definitely a financial opportunity, there’s an environmental opportunity on the table, and no one is a clear winner,” she said. “A blended technology approach to dealing with the variability of plastics and the diversity of plastics in the system, as well as matching different technologies with different levels of infrastructure development in the market, is what will give us the best results.”
Nor are they about downstream solutions. While mechanical recycling and molecular recycling are downstream, end-of-life solutions to the plastic problem, brands can also make more sustainable packaging decisions upstream. This includes designing packaging materials differently and adopting non-traditional formats like reusable, refillable or compostable solutions.
“What brands can do from a packaging design perspective is ensure that a lot of their packaging is aligned with mechanical recycling, knowing that there won’t always be economic incentives to process all packaging through this system,” Luu said. “For our most difficult-to-recycle plastics, including some packaging formats and especially non-packaging formats, molecular recycling is a downstream option.
“…Recognizing that investments are needed across the entire value chain, even downstream of the technologies to be successfully integrated, will ultimately support the integration of those technologies and accelerate commercialization,” she said. added.
Future challenges and opportunities
An important part of this process is getting consumers to put used plastics into recycling streams after use. Labeling plays a key role here, Luu said, as it helps inform the consumer in which bin to place it. However, this still does not guarantee that the item will ever be recycled.
“Infrastructure recovery systems are patchy, and that’s true for molecular recycling, that’s true for mechanical recycling,” Luu said. “…I think we’re still many years away from full commercialization of this infrastructure, where something like ‘recyclable’ is a credible explanation of what’s going on in the system.”
Large pet food bags are often made of mixed plastics, such as mixed PET-PE materials, or homopolymers with colorants and other additives incorporated for functional purposes, which can cause mechanical recycling. However, new advanced recycling methods can be used to break down these mixed materials, according to Luu.
Some new molecular recycling technologies Luu said she is looking forward to including purification technologies capable of handling mixed plastic waste streams, as well as conversion technologies using different platforms such as pyrolysis and gasification to obtain propylene or ethylene outputs.
In fact, PSC’s Flex Forward recycling pilot program for used pet food and treat bags is currently exploring advanced recycling methods as a way to manage the more than 8,000 pounds of plastic packaging it collected in late 2020 and early 2021, according to Melissa Bauer, director of sustainability at PSC and co-host of UnPacked22.
Research and development will continue for molecular recycling technologies, and industry stakeholders advocating for a more sustainable sector, such as the Pet Sustainability Coalition, will continue to push for the adoption of more sustainable packaging materials. circulars and improving recycling policy and infrastructure.
“Looking at policies like REP [Extended Producer Responsibility] as perhaps written on the wall, I believe that regardless of molecular recycling, our collections and sorting infrastructure will change and for the better,” Luu concluded.
“What stands out most to me when I look at the work we’ve done on finance, environment and human health impact over the past two years leading up to the last report is that the more we invest in the collection and sorting of our plastic, to direct them to the most mass-efficient and environmentally friendly type of solution, plus all players in the value chain – be it the collectors, sorters, customers – stand to gain. Really, it depends on our political will to invest in this system upstream.
Learn more about packaging solutions and trends for pet food and treats.