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ESG and The Uncertain Future of Plastic

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States landfilled 27 million tons of plastic waste in 2018, or approximately 165 pounds of plastic per person living in the U.S. that year. Another 5.6 million tons of plastic waste was combusted for energy recovery, while approximately 3 million tons or 8.5% of all plastics were actually recycled.

Since 2018, the accumulation of U.S. landfilled plastic waste has only accelerated due to a storm of global events. Each year, plastic waste accounts for approximately 11%  of 294 million tons of overall recyclable waste dumped into landfills.  

Recycling post consumer plastics in the U.S. got a lot harder starting in 2017. The start-up of several fracking boom greenfield polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polypropylene (PP) plastic resin plants in the U.S. created an abundance of virgin plastic resin capacity to meet rising U.S. and world demand. From 2018 through 2020, virgin PET and PP resin pricing became less expensive than using recycled plastics. During this time, China systematically banned importing all plastic waste from North America and Europe. As a result, global market demand and pricing for post-consumer plastic waste crashed. The 2020 global pandemic accelerated the uptake of e-commerce and the use of virgin pastic based packaging amongst American consumers. As a result, the disposal of thousands of tons of plastic recyclables was redirected to different landfills, out of fear that the refuse might be infectious or expose municipal recycling facilities to the virus.

A Brief History Lesson About Plastic Waste

According to “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made”, the large scale production of plastics and their use in consumer products dates back to the early 1950s. Since then, the rapid growth in the production of plastics has surpassed most other man made materials with the exception of steel and concrete. 

During the timeframe of 1950 through 2015, it is estimated that:

  • 8300 million metric tons (Mt) of plastic resins and fibers manufactured globally
  • 50% of all plastic resins and fibers production was created by man since 2000, and
  • 2500Mt of plastics, or 30% of all plastics ever produced, are still in use. Most of that usage is in durable goods related to transportation, machinery, building and construction.

A Brief History Lesson About Plastic Waste

According to “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made”, the large scale production of plastics and their use in consumer products dates back to the early 1950s. Since then, the rapid growth in the production of plastics has surpassed most other man made materials with the exception of steel and concrete.

During the timeframe of 1950 through 2015, it is estimated that:

  • 8300 million metric tons (Mt) of plastic resins and fibers manufactured globally
  • 50% of all plastic resins and fibers production was created by man since 2000, and
  • 2500Mt of plastics, or 30% of all plastics ever produced, are still in use. Most of that usage is in durable goods related to transportation, machinery, building and construction.
Original image from REUTERS/Simon Scarr, Marco Hernandez.

Are Plastics Really Recyclable? 

Yes, plastics are recyclable, but only to a certain extent. Unlike infinitely recyclable aluminum and glass, plastics (which are fossil fuel based) can only be mechanically recycled a few times. Conversely, chemical recycling, where plastics are broken down into their petrochemical base components, is on the rise commercially and is now considered a complement to mechical recycling. 2020 IHS Markit estimates suggest that chemical recycling might replace the majority of mechanical recycling by 2050. Quaternary recycling, another form of plastic recycling, is the incineration of plastic for its energy recover and is more commonly used today in Europe and China and in the U.S.

The ability to recycle plastics hinges on market demand and local regulations. But most importantly, educating the entire value chain from packaging designers to waste collector on the value of recycling. In 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) established a classification system to help consumers properly identify and recycle or dispose of plastics. Today, manufacturers follow this coding system and place a number, or SPI code, on each product, which is usually molded into the bottom or side of the product. Designated by their SPI Code, plastics fall into seven categories and can be roughtly divided into two major use groups: high performance and non-durable single use. 

High performance plastics can last decades, make homes more energy efficient, drastically improve fuel efficiency in transportation applications and make electronics and machinery more shock resistant and cost effective. Most commonly used high performace plastics include:

SPI-2: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) represents 17% of global plastics production and is one of the least recycled plastics. Circa 65% of PVC is used in building and construction applciations.

SPI-6: Polystyrene (PS) is lightweight, highly insulative plastic used in construction and electronic applications. Also known as “styrofoam” (PS) floats in water and is not often recycled. PS represents <5% of global plastics production and is quickly being banned for consumer product applciations by most global consumer product brands.  

SPI-7: Pastics such as polycarbonate, acrylic and nylon are not easily broken down unless exposed to +200F temperatures. They are difficult to recycle and have smaller demand volumes. A growing number of suppliers are turning to bio-renewable derived alteratives.

Source: “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made”, 2015

Single-Use Plastics

Single-use plastics are goods that are made primarily from fossil fuel–based chemicals (petrochemicals) and are meant to be disposed of right after use. Single-use plastics are most commonly used for packaging and service ware (e.g. bottles, wrappers, straws, and bags). Single use plastics could easily be replaced with bio-based sustainable alternatives in applications such as pouches, wrappers, bottles, straws and bags.

Today’s single use plastics have replaced glass, aluminum cans and paper in a number of consumable applications because they are strong, flexible, lightweight and provide outstanding moisture and vapor barrier performance. Thus, they significantly increase the overall shelf life of fresh foods and beverages, and enable more product with less packaging to be shipped over greater distances. However, truly single use plastics represent roughly 4% of all plastics used globally per annum and are typically disposed of within a year of their production.  

The most commonly used plastics in single use packaging applications include:  

SPI-1: PET (also know as polyester). It is one of the most commonly recycled plastics in the U.S. and has successfully recycled into textiles and even more water bottles.  

SPI-2: High density polyethylene (HDPE) and SP-4, its low density polyethylene (LDPE) cousin are predominately used in consumer product flexible packaging. High density polyethylene is highly recyclable and is also used for higher performance single use to semi-durable applications such as for cosmetic and beauty packaging and even children’s toys. Low density polyethylene becomes tacky when hot and is used for heat sealing food packging. It is also difficult to recycle LDPE because of its low melt point.    

SPI-5: Polyproplyene (PP) was discovered in 1951 while scientists were trying to convert proplylene into gasoline.  It used in food trays, cups and to-go containers and is widely used in durable transportation, consumer product and construction applications.

Source: Changing Course, Plastic Carbon and the transition to circulatory IHS Markit, January 2021

The Impact of Single Use Plastics 

  • By 2020, it was estimated that the world had produced over 300 million tonnes of plastic waste each year. Nearly 40% of that waste originated from consumer product packaging which contains a significant amount of single use plastic.
  • To date, only 9% of all the plastic waste worldwide has ever been recycled.
  • Currently, the U.S. has no federal legislation focused on banning single use plastics. Conversely, Canada and European Union will ban the usage of most all single use plastics by year-end 2021.
  • Although banning single use plastics would reduce terrestrial and oceanic pollution, it would not reduce demand for refined fossil fuels. Approxinately 2% of gas production worldwide ends up in plastics and chemicals. Only approximately 7% of all oil production worldwide ends up in plastics and chemicals.
  • Either from plastics, chemicals, cars or cows it is estimated conservatively speaking that that green house gas emissions from refined fossil fuels by 2050 may cost the world ecomony US$8 trillion and impact the U.S. economy by 1.1% of its GDP on a per annum basis.

China’s “National Sword” Policy

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the world’s most populous nation with 1.4 billion people (as pf 2019). The country generates over 200 million tons of domestic waste per annum. In contract, the U.S. whose population is 330 million, generates more domestic waste per annum, at 300 million tons – 100 million more tons than the PRC.

In 2018, the PRC enacted its “National Sword” policy has created a worldwide plastics disposal and recycling crisis. Enacted in January 2018, National Sword set extremely tough limits on plastics, aluminum, glass and paper solid wastes as raw materials. The policy increased purity thresholds from 90%-95% to over 99.5%. Most municipal recycling facilities in the United States today struggled to meet a 90% purity threshold. The Chinese government instituted National Sword to stop the chronic dumping of foreign waste materials imported under the guise of quality recyclate. The dumping practice was facilitated by a need to fill and better monetize westbound U.S. to China ocean container traffic. In light of the policy’s three year anniversary, China announced in November 2020 that it would ban all foreign waste imports starting in January 2021. The ban has created a massive overflow effect into Southeastern Asian nations, which have quickly became overwhelmed by the volumes of diverted refuse received. In response, many countries have implemented their own blanket foreign waste bans. Starting in 2025, China will impose a full ban on single use consumer product plastics.  

Why is Recycling Plastic in the U.S. Difficult?

Prior to the 2018 China ban, over 70% of post consumer plastics collected in the United States were sold and shipped to China for processing. Only 9% of U.S. post consumer plastics were recycled domesically, while 12% was incinerated. Simply stated: 

  • There is very limited infrastructure and very few domestic markets for post-consumer plastic in the U.S.
  • The U.S. is floating in natural gas and petroleum reserves. The cost of producing virgin plastic resin in the United States can typically be less expensive and less burdensome than sourcing consistent high quality sources of recycled plastics in adequate volumes.
  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, recycling workers have historically had one of the highest occupational fatality rates in the U.S. In 2014, recycling plant worker fatality rates were estimated at 20.8 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers.

Now What? During its third annual America Recyles Summit in November 2020, the EPA announced that it would be setting a goal to achieve a 50% national recycling rate by 2030. Due in part to China’s “National Sword” policy, the U.S. national rate on all recycling dropped to 32% in 2018. It is anticipated that the national recycling rate dropped further in 2020 due to pandemic effects. 

Nearly 300 major stakeholders have pledged to support the EPA including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Waste & Recycling Association and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. However, many believe that goals alone will not be enough to increaease the rate of recycling in the U.S. Coordinated interstate legislation, federal government assistance or recycled content mandates will be needed. Many have also noted the serious financial strain that local municipalities have and will face due to the pandemic. Few local governments may be in a position to help invest in equipment or infrastructure efforts to support recycling rate progress. 

Federal and State government officials and the EPA can take steps to follow other countries that are addressing the growing negative impact of not managing plastic. They could also partner with leading global brands to tackle plastic waste. Over the past ten years, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative has rallied over 250 global brands, organizations and governments behind a positive vision of a circular global economy for plastics. According to the MacArthur Foundation’s “2020-Progress-Report,” many of the companies that signed on to the new plastics economy initiative are coming up short on meeting this 2025 commitment. A closer collaboration between state governments, the EPA, national recycling associations and global brands would certainly help achieve MacArthur Foundation and EPA goals. By working together significant changes could take place such as:

  • Instituting a nationwide ban on single-use plastics which are currently banned in California, New York and Hawaii.
  • Mandating the achievement of recycled plastic content goals
  • Designing non-taxable 100% bio-renewable and compostable plastics
  • Gamifying the recycling of PET, HDPE and PP rigid plastics in exchange for product and service discounts.
  • Initiating deposit and reuse schemes for rigid PET, HDPE and PP containers.

Is it Time to Put Technology on the Team?

For the 600+ recycling facilities within the U.S., the employment of robots are solution to man power bottlenecks caused by the pandemic. Current municipal recycling processes in the U.S. require a tremendous amount of manual labor. The sorting that takes place in a recycling facility is repetitive, and not very sanitary. In addition, contrary to the majority of other industrialized countries, the U.S. has adopted a single-stream recycling approach. While the approach allows plastics, glass, metals, and paper to be efficiently collected in the same recycle bin, the process creates cross-contamination and becomes quickly overwhelming for manual laborers.

The usage of robots in municipal recycling can be systematized, controlled and automated with the usage of artificial intelligence and deep learning. It is a perfect match for single-stream recycling. Robots have the ability to use the same perception and logic that humans use to select and pick plastic recycling. Above and beyond humans, robots can work 24 hours a day and have the ability to automatically track both quantity and quality of recyclate picked in order to immediately estimate changes in the recycle stream and recyclate yield value. 

Over the next decade, robotics and machine learning could fundamentally change the economics of plastics recycling and thus turn it into a much more lucrative business. The usage of robotics in plastic and mix media recycling has grown substantially over the past five years.

  • In 2019, there were nearly 100 robotic sorting systems in place in North America. 
  • Market leaders include: AMP Robotics, Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), Machinex and ZenRobotics. Other robot vendors have entered the North American market from Europe as well including Bollegraaf and Van Dyk Recycling Solutions. 
  • AMP Robotics has designed an intelligent three handed robot that can analyze and sort 80 items of recycling per minute, a rate that is twice as fast as human sorters.

Have Your Trash and Eat It Too:

Can plastics be recycled by other means? Hundreds of new types of enzymes with an appetite for plastics are either discovered or engineered on an annual basis. Enzymes created from plastic-eating bacteria found in Japan were recently able to breakdown a PETplastic with high commercial recycle value in a few days. This process is currently under development in France and can depolymerize a ton of PET in 10 hours under controlled temperature conditions. 

It has also been discovered that certain species of mushroom and even edible types such as Pleurotus ostreatus (Oyster mushrooms) and Schizophyllum commune (Split gill mushrooms) have the ability to colonize, mechanically and chemically breakdown polyurethane into its building block components over a period of months. In fact, over fifty species of fungi have been discovered to have the ability to breakdown polyurethane in the past two years alone. Although fungi might not be an immediate solution for recycling polyurethan, it could open up future opportunities for more efficiently landfilling.  

The Botton Line: There are no magic bullets that will make the millions of tons of plastic waste generated in the U.S. automatically go away. It will take a combination of federal government regulation, industry leaders, consumers, scientists, and aggressive use of technology to tap into plastics’ recycling potential.

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