Next-generation Materials, Advanced Recycling Offer New Solutions to Age-old Plastics Problem

Plastics and associated emissions will grow through the next decades, but innovations in advanced recycling and bioplastics hold promise for flattening these emissions, says Cleantech Group

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — May 2, 2024 — Next-generation bioplastics and advanced recycling technologies can reduce carbon footprint and create new pathways for an industry hurtling toward an annual value of $1 trillion, according to Cleantech Group (graphics included).

Multiple benefits, including true biodegradability, are seen from the new generation of bioplastics and alternatives. Other advantages include water-solubility that can prevent contamination of waterways, improved durability, and near cost parity with conventional resins.

“Manufacturers can cut a product’s carbon footprint nearly in half simply by incorporating some percentage of bioplastic materials,” said Cleantech Group Materials & Chemicals Associate Buff López. “Plastic producers can easily add biodegradability to existing processes without needing to overhaul their infrastructure,” he added.

Mechanical recycling currently accounts for 90% of all plastic recycling but cannot recycle three of the seven plastic types and produces a mixed plastic product with limited offtake demand. Advanced recycling technologies, on the other hand, can process all plastic types to produce higher-quality products, and create so-called “circular plastic packaging.”

“Recycling rates with older methods were a paltry 8% of total plastic waste,” said Cleantech Group Waste & Recycling Associate Parker Bovée. “Advanced recycling technologies alongside mechanical recycling could meet over 30% of global polymer demand by 2040,” he added.

Key findings from the research:

  • Scale of challenge. It will take a lot of effort to retool a “throw-away” economy built on cheap and durable plastics. Production of such plastics is predicted to triple to 1.3B tons by 2060, likely raising CO2 emissions from current levels of about 1.9B tons. What truly marks out the challenge is that a mere 0.5% of current production is classified as bioplastics. Industries reliant on plastics will need a multi-pronged strategy of engaging both recycled plastics and bioplastics – the new innovations can help increase that supply.
  • Limited ambitions and a moving target. Production of bioplastics is predicted to rise a whopping 3.5 times by 2028, but the increase would still account for a mere 1.8% of current plastics manufacturing levels as overall plastics production continues to increase. This is because of significant supply gaps and production capacity, and early concerns over environmental impact and cost premiums.
  • Widespread policy push. Governments across the world are adopting bioplastics regulatory frameworks, introducing market incentives and improving consumer awareness. The U.S., for example, aims to replace 90% of plastics with biomaterials in the next 20 years.
  • Bioplastics leaders. Currently, the U.S. is the top producer of bioplastics with a capacity of 150,000 tons per annum. Thailand is a surprise #2, with capacity of 95,000 tons per annum. But the Asian country exports 90% of its bioresins to countries such as the Netherlands and China.
  • Three key pathways: Advanced recycling targets three primary offtake markets — plastic-to-fuel, plastic-to-chemicals, and plastic-to-plastic. However, true plastic-to-plastic recycling has grown slowly due to high energy, water, and waste disposal requirements. While no advanced recycling technology can be universally applied to plastic waste yet due to these requirements, selectively targeting plastics that are harder to recycle with conventional methods will not only improve recycling rates but commoditize otherwise landfilled waste.
  • Targeting packaging plastics. Nestle, P&G, and Coca-Cola are at the forefront of efforts to improve recycling rates of packaging plastics, including PET, PVC, PP, and HDPE, which account for about 33% of all annual plastic production. By 2025, Nestle aims to use only recyclable plastic, and also cut virgin plastic use by 33%. P&G has set 50% cuts for virgin plastic use and 100% recyclability targets for 2030. Coca-Cola will use only recyclable packaging material by 2025, and at least 50% of recycled material in packaging.

About Cleantech Group

Cleantech® Group is a research-driven company that helps corporates, public sector, investors and others, identify, assess, and engage with the innovative solutions and opportunities that are related to the world’s massive, and growing, environmental and climate challenges.​ Our insights and expertise are delivered to clients all over the world through our Research, Consulting, and Events.  We have been the leading authority on global cleantech innovation since 2002.​