No. 5 Plastic May Soon Be No. 1 in Recycling
If you are at a sports stadium, you might notice a new logo on recycling bins: that of PureCycle.
PureCycle is a U.S.-based company seeking to turn plastic waste into an infinitely recyclable material. Over the last year, the company has partnered with stadiums in Orlando, Cincinnati and Jacksonville on a pilot project to capture as much polypropylene (PP) waste plastic as possible in order to recycle it.
The pilot project aims to educate consumers about No. 5 plastic, but also to educate the folks who work for the stadium and who make the purchasing decisions to try to buy one type of plastic.
“We teach them how to change their purchasing behaviors so that they can end up with a consistent type of plastic,” PureCycle CEO Dustin Olson told EcoWatch.
No. 5 plastic — polypropylene (PP) waste plastic — is one of the most versatile plastics in the world today. While polyethylene remains the most-used plastic in the world, polypropylene is widely used, as it is a durable plastic that is used in all types of applications, including carpet, cars, food, toys, and textiles.
“The problem with polypropylene is it’s too good,” said Olson. “Because it’s so versatile it’s very difficult to recycle. You end up with a mountain of stuff that all looks different.”
Enter Proctor & Gamble. Back in 2013 in its R&D labs, the huge consumer company developed a new recycling technology that falls under the umbrella of chemical recycling. Chemical recycling takes hard-to-recycle plastics, like PP, and breaks them down into their molecular components in order to create a “virgin” plastic that can, according to P&G and others, be infinitely used and recycled. The main advantage to this type of recycling is that the process can ingest all types of material with different colors, shapes, and grime and waste attached to it. It is unlike mechanical recycling, which sorts and recycles the most common plastics, but only if they are singular molecule plastics.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2018, 75% of plastic still ends up in landfills. And only 8.7% of plastic is recycled, mostly using the mechanical recycling method, which can be inefficient and expensive, but which most of us are used to by now — the blue and green bins.
Chemical recycling aims to change that percentage dramatically. In some sectors, it’s called a “closed loop” or circularity concept. The idea is that plastic products have an infinite life, as the plastic is created, made into products, sold to the consumer, and then recycled back into a virgin product called polypropylene resin. PureCycle first demonstrated this in 2019 when it converted waste carpet into a usable feedstock that producers could purchase. This happened at PureCycle’s first plant in Ohio.
But it points to a larger market for PP waste. A Closed Loop Partners study estimates that the market for PP materials could be as high as $120-billion dollars. Part of this is due to the fact that in 2018, China stopped the importation of plastic waste from the U.S. This opened up a huge market for recycled waste.
According to the Product Stewardship Institute, more than 40 companies have entered the chemical recycling space as of 2021, including big players like ExxonMobil and Eastman Chemical. But the nonprofit notes that in states like Maine, Oregon, Colorado and California, laws have been enacted to make chemical recycling more difficult for companies by keeping the process in the “disposal” category — and therefore falling under the regulations of the Clean Air Act — rather than the manufacturing category, a category with fewer regulatory burdens. But in other states, like Georgia, Florida, Texas and others, the legislation is heading in the other direction. In 2019 in Ohio, legislation was passed that allowed plastics to be converted to fuel. The National Resources Defense Council has gone as far to say that chemical recycling is “greenwashing incineration.”
PureCycle, a subsidiary of Innventures, an investment company interested in disruption, aims to have its plant in Ironton, Ohio, fully operational by 2023. It hopes to ingest enough polypropylene so that it can output 107 million pounds of what’s called “Ultra-Pure Recycled” resin. This material would be the building blocks of either more products, or fuel.
“The consumers today are very different than they were 20 years ago,” said Olson. “They’re interested in sustainability. And technology is catching up. You have to have technology to lead the solution.”
PureCycle is also building a plant in Augusta, Georgia and is building partnerships with South Korea and Japan.
“The best way to think about what we do, is we’re a big washing machine for the molecule,” Olson told EcoWatch. “In 20 years, I hope that Pure Cycle is the gold standard for recycling. I think we change the way people think about recycling.”
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