The tagline, “plastics make it possible,” has been commonplace for years. However, recently, the environmental impact of these products has begun to garner negative attention. Despite being commonly defined as one material, there are many different types of plastics, each with different properties and uses. These are typically divided into four main categories: thermoplastics, thermosets, engineering plastics, and plastic fibers. Despite the ubiquity of plastics in our lives today, only about 2% of plastics like bottles are recycled into the same or similar-quality applications. Given the gaps in recycling, and the potential impact of these trends, research is being carried out in a variety of related areas, including Designing Plastics for a Circular Carbon Economy and Reimagining Plastic Degradation for Upcycling.
According to BCC Research, the North American transparent plastics market should reach 5.6 billion pounds by 2022 from 4.5 billion pounds in 2017 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.6%, from 2017 to 2022, and in turn, the global market for plastics recycling should grow from $25.3 billion in 2018 to $33.8 billion by 2023 at a CAGR of 5.9% for the period of 2018-2023. MarketsandMarkets forecast that the global market for recycled plastics was valued at $34.80 billion in 2016 and is projected to reach $50.36 billion by 2022, at a CAGR of 6.4% during the forecast period. This market is expected to be positively impacted by concerns arising from the difficulty in disposal of virgin plastics, the growing awareness of energy savings, and the increased use of these plastics in many applications. Recycled plastics can be used in a wide range of goods, including: plastic bottles, bin liners, carrier bags, fiber filling for sleeping bags and duvets, office accessories, drainage pipes, ducting and flooring, fleeces, seed trays, garden sheds, compost bins, fences, and furniture. These goods find applications in several industries such as packaging, textile, building & construction, transportation, and others.
While ridged, transparent plastics represent the majority of what we think of as plastics, biodegradable polymers are designed to degrade upon disposal by the action of living organisms, and may be used in place of more traditional plastics for a variety of applications. BCC Research reports that the global market for biodegradable polymers reached 484.7 kilotons in 2017 and should reach 984.8 kilotons by 2022, at a CAGR of 15.2% for the period of 2017-2022. MarketsandMarkets goes on to note that the market for biodegradable plastics is expected to reach $6.12 billion by 2023 – up from $3.02 billion in 2018, growing at a CAGR of 15.1%. This growth is attributed to the rising income of people in emerging economies, and high growth in the agriculture & horticulture, packaging & bags, and textile industries. Major players such as NatureWorks (US), BASF (Germany), Total Corbion PLA (Netherlands), Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation (Japan), and Biome Bioplastics (UK) have adopted development strategies such as expansions, mergers, acquisitions & partnerships, and new product launches to achieve growth in the biodegradable plastics market.
Additional trends in the waste and plastics recycling market, as identified by Frost & Sullivan include: the effect of the waste import ban imposed by China, which has the potential to drive investment opportunities for countries like Australia, Japan, Germany, the UK, and the US. Furthermore, the Internet of things, smart recycling, smart bins, smart eWaste bins, innovative business models, use of sustainable building materials, sustainable methods of managing plastic waste, and its market potential are all seen as major factors influencing this market.
To address concerns regarding plastics, government agencies have initiated a variety of programs. For example, the U.S. Navy recently published an analysis of its recycling programs and found that gaps existed, leading to new recommendations for its recycling programs. To help solve recycling problems for the average American, the U.S. EPA provides a variety of recommendations to help improve recycling rates and effectiveness. The EPA utilizes data from the American Chemistry Council and the National Association for PET Container Resources to measure the recycling of plastic. The most recent findings report a 3.1 million tons for a 9.1 percent recycling rate in 2015, but the recycling rate of PET bottles and jars was 29.9 percent in 2015, and the rate for HDPE natural bottles was 30.3 percent in 2015.
The DOE Office of Environment, Health, Safety & Security serves as a major influencer in this space. According to DOE, the DOE Pollution Prevention, Waste Reduction and Recycling Program supports Executive Order (E.O.) 13693, Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade; DOE Order 436.1, Department Sustainability; and, the Department’s SSPP. This program aims to reduce or eliminate the acquisition, use, and release of toxic, and other pollutants, and to increase the Department’s use of less toxic alternative chemicals and processes in achieving DOE’s FY 2020 SSPP Goal 7 reduction targets. Goal 7 reduction targets are:
- at least 50% diversion of non-hazardous solid waste; and,
- at least 50% diversion of construction and demolition debris.
A tangible example of DOE’s commitment to improving recycling capabilities was announced in January 2017 through its Reducing Embodied-energy and Decreasing Emissions (REMADE) Institute. REMADE is part of the Manufacturing USA initiative and led by the Sustainable Manufacturing Innovation Alliance. With its headquarters in Rochester, New York REMADE will leverage up to $70 million in federal funding, subject to appropriations, and will be matched by $70 million in private cost-share commitments from over 100 partners. The REMADE Institute will focus on driving down the cost of technologies needed to reuse, recycle and remanufacture materials such as metals, fibers, polymers and electronic waste and aims to achieve a 50 percent improvement in overall energy efficiency by 2027.
The DOE and USDA are collaborating on efforts relating to the Circular Carbon Economy, which necessitates crosscutting technologies, especially those for the land, agricultural, and energy sectors. To further explore these technologies and needs, the groups held a summit during the summer of 2018. In addition to this past summit, other learning opportunities include the upcoming Plastics Recycling Conference this March and the Resource Recycling Conference in August.