By Saabira Chaudhuri
Big makers and users of plastic packaging are betting on a
recycling technology that has failed for decades to take off, as a
public backlash and new rules push them to find ways to cut waste
and greenhouse-gas emissions tied to plastic.
Plastic makers like BP PLC and Dow Inc., and packaging users
like Coca-Cola Co., Danone SA and Unilever PLC, are trialing or
investing tens of millions of dollars in the technology, called
chemical recycling. The process uses chemicals or heat to break
down plastic so it can be turned into clean, new plastic again and
again while preserving quality -- a Holy Grail for the
That is a big improvement on existing, mechanical recycling --
in which plastic is shredded, washed and melted -- where quality
diminishes over time. Material processed this way can only be
recycled a few times, mostly into lower-quality products, before
eventually going to landfills or incinerators.
"We see chemical recycling as a game changer," BP Chief
Executive Robert Dudley told investors earlier this year. The
energy giant, which makes a key ingredient of plastic, plans to
open a $25 million pilot plant in Illinois next year to demonstrate
Chemical recycling has been around since the 1950s, but high
costs and a lack of demand made it financially unviable. Companies
are turning to it now, partly because of the need to find more
recycled material to meet or forestall regulation aiming to cut
emissions and waste. Drinks makers are especially under pressure,
following a European Union directive for plastic bottles to use 30%
recycled plastic from 2030. The U.K. plans to start taxing plastic
packaging containing less than 30% recycled content in 2022.
Various recycling technologies are competing for investment, but
all face hurdles. Some can only handle PET, the plastic ubiquitous
in water and soda bottles. The environmental impacts of many
technologies are still unclear, while getting a steady supply of
material to recycle presents a big challenge.
Investors say chemical recycling could improve overall recycling
rates because it can handle plastic that traditional methods can't,
like black food trays, colored shampoo bottles, sticky ketchup
bottles and polyester clothing and carpets. Only 9% of plastic
waste produced so far has been recycled, according to a 2017 study
from the journal Science Advances. Much of this is due to poor
collection and sorting, but partly it is because mechanical
recycling hasn't kept up with new varieties of plastic
"There hadn't been the public-policy push and pressure to
increase recycling rates, not like what there is today," said Tim
Boven, who works on upping recycled content in Dow's plastic
packaging. "The situation isn't terribly different to the journey
we have been on with renewable energy." Dow has a supply agreement
with Fuenix Ecogy Group, a Dutch startup that uses heat to crack
the polymers in plastic.
Coca-Cola is also counting on chemical recycling to meet its
promise of using at least 50% recycled content in its packaging by
2030, up from 30% today. "We need it 100% to work," said Scott
Pearson, the drinks giant's head of R&D engineering.
"Mechanical recycling isn't going to get us there by itself."
Coca-Cola is advising Swiss startup gr3n, which uses microwave
radiation to speed up the process of breaking down PET. It has also
invested in Ioniqa Technologies, which submerges PET in a solution
to dissolve the molecular structure. Unilever has also funded
Ioniqa -- which opened a plant this summer -- and trialed its
plastic in Hellmann's mayonnaise bottles.
Evian-maker Danone SA and PepsiCo Inc. have supply deals with
Loop Industries Inc., a Canadian startup whose technology
reverse-engineers PET plastic to its original building blocks.
"At the moment we are concerned because we are all behind the
curve on this issue, so we need to catch up," said Roberto Vanin,
R&D chief at Suntory Beverage and Food Europe. The Orangina
owner is helping fund Carbios, a French firm that uses enzymes to
break down plastic. Nestlé SA, PepsiCo and L'Oréal SA are also
Some chemical recycling technologies are geared toward tackling
the plastic ubiquitous in products like microwave-meal containers,
bubble wrap and laundry-detergent bottles, or dealing with films
and mixed plastics.
The tougher bonds in such plastic require temperatures as high
as 1,832 Fahrenheit in the absence of oxygen to break down. That
yields an oil that can be turned into new plastic. Unilever
recently launched a line of Magnum ice cream sold in tubs made from
low-quality, mixed plastic recycled using such technology.
However, heat-driven processes are highly energy-intensive, says
recycling-industry consultant Axion Ltd., adding that the overall
impact of chemical recycling on the environment isn't yet
And not everyone thinks chemical recycling will take off.
"Every three to five years I hear the chemical recycling of
plastics is now available but nobody is operating a commercially
viable, scaled facility," said Richard Kirkman, chief technology
and innovation officer for the U.K. arm of Veolia Environnement SA.
The waste-management company has been investing in improving
collection and sorting for its existing recycling facilities. "It's
a potential answer whereas mechanical recycling is an actual
Write to Saabira Chaudhuri at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 08, 2019 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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