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New Dollars and Sense for Recycling

Recycling has faced strong headwinds over the past few years. China announced its National Sword policy restricting imports of recyclables in 2017, and other Southeast Asian countries following suit shortly thereafter. Long-established recycling markets were disrupted and communities had to search for newer, less-established markets for the plastics (and other materials) they collected. Now the COVID-19 pandemic has further challenged an already strained plastics recycling infrastructure. In recent weeks, some recycling programs have been paused, and general economic turbulence may create additional hurdles in the future.

But in the midst of these struggles, there’s some good news. Approximately $5.0 billion worth of good news in the form of announced plastics recycling investments here at home.

We knew anecdotally that a lot was happening in this area as multiple ventures were announced over the past few years, primarily in new types of advanced plastics recycling technologies. So we decided to measure how much.

That’s where that $5.0 billion figure comes from. It reflects the amount of new investments in U.S. plastics recycling announced since China said it would largely close its markets to our recyclables. More than 50 projects have been announced that have the potential to divert three million tons of mostly plastic waste from landfills.

And that’s just the start. We project that the United States alone could support up to 260 advanced plastics recycling facilities, generating nearly 40,000 jobs.

What does $5.0 billion worth of investments look like? Here’s a short list of some of the projects:

  • Brightmark is building a commercial-scale advanced recycling facility in Northeast Indiana. When it comes online in late 2020, it plans to convert 100,000 tons of mixed plastic waste each year into useful products such as naptha, transportation fuels, and wax and is expected to create 136 fulltime jobs.
  • Eastman is commercializing two technologies that break down hard-to-recycle plastics into their chemical building blocks for re-manufacture into multiple types of plastic. Eastman says this enables used plastics to be recycled over and over again without degradation of quality.
  • Agilyx in partnership with Americas Styrenics is breaking down used polystyrene into styrene that is used to make new polystyrene, a process that can be repeated again and again. Agilyx operates one facility in Oregon and INEOS-Styroluton will use its technology to build another in Illinois.
  • Renewlogy collects used plastics from multiple cities and creates valuable products such as naphtha that can be used to make new plastic, diesel, and petrochemical products.
  • Dow is sourcing recycled resin from Avangard Innovative to make polyethylene for applications including liners, shrink wrap, and protective packaging. The recycled resin, which is processed using mechanical recycling, is from used film packaging.

But this could be just the beginning. A 2019 report by the Closed Loop Partners (CLP), an organization that invests in the development of the circular economy, found there is tremendous demand for the products of advanced plastics recycling. CLP found that “…these technologies could meet an addressable market with potential revenue opportunities of $120 billion in the United States and Canada alone (emphasis added).” Last year CLP identified 60 technology providers with significant potential for growth, along with 250 investors and strategic partners engaged with them.

The plastics recycling industry has weathered many storms over its brief history in the U.S. And while this might be the biggest storm yet, we’re heartened to see a swift response with concrete projects, new business ventures, and funding to help create a new, more circular economy for plastics.

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