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Cleantech Group, Next-Gen Materials & Recycling Solutions

Cleantech Group reveals that innovative advancements in advanced recycling and bioplastics
May 3, 2024

The ubiquitous nature of plastics in our lives is undeniable. From packaging to everyday products, plastics are deeply ingrained in modern society. However, the environmental repercussions of this reliance are alarming, with associated emissions projected to surge in the coming decades. Nevertheless, amidst these challenges, there's hope on the horizon. Cleantech Group, a leading authority in sustainable technology, sheds liplght on innovative solutions that could revolutionize the way we perceive and utilize plastics.

Next-generation bioplastics and advanced recycling technologies are at the forefront of this paradigm shift. According to Cleantech Group, these innovations offer not only a reduction in carbon footprint but also the creation of new pathways for an industry hurtling towards an annual value of $1 trillion. The benefits are manifold, with the new generation of bioplastics and alternatives promising true biodegradability, water-solubility to prevent waterway contamination, improved durability, and near-cost parity with conventional resins.

Buff López, Materials & Chemicals Associate at Cleantech Group, emphasizes the potential impact: "Manufacturers can cut a product’s carbon footprint nearly in half simply by incorporating some percentage of bioplastic materials. Plastic producers can easily add biodegradability to existing processes without needing to overhaul their infrastructure."

While mechanical recycling currently accounts for 90% of all plastic recycling, it faces limitations. Three of the seven plastic types cannot be recycled through mechanical means, and the process produces a mixed plastic product with limited demand. Advanced recycling technologies, however, offer a solution. These technologies can process all plastic types to produce higher-quality products, creating what's known as "circular plastic packaging."

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

1. Scale of Challenge: The challenge ahead is immense. The production of cheap and durable plastics is predicted to triple to 1.3 billion tons by 2060, significantly raising CO2 emissions. Yet, only 0.5% of current production is classified as bioplastics. Cleantech Group suggests a multi-pronged strategy involving both recycled plastics and bioplastics to meet this challenge.

2. Limited Ambitions and Moving Targets: Despite predictions of a 3.5-fold increase in bioplastics production by 2028, it would still represent a mere 1.8% of current plastics manufacturing levels. Supply gaps, production capacity, and concerns over environmental impact and cost premiums are significant barriers.

3. Widespread Policy Push: Governments worldwide are adopting bioplastics regulatory frameworks, introducing market incentives, and improving consumer awareness. The U.S. aims to replace 90% of plastics with biomaterials in the next 20 years.

4. Bioplastics Leaders: Currently, the U.S. leads bioplastics production with a capacity of 150,000 tons per annum. Surprisingly, Thailand comes in second with a capacity of 95,000 tons per annum, exporting 90% of its bioresins to countries such as the Netherlands and China.

5. Three Key Pathways: Advanced recycling targets three primary markets — plastic-to-fuel, plastic-to-chemicals, and plastic-to-plastic. While true plastic-to-plastic recycling has been slow due to high energy, water, and waste disposal requirements, selectively targeting harder-to-recycle plastics with conventional methods can improve recycling rates and commoditize otherwise landfilled waste.

6. Targeting Packaging Plastics: Industry giants like Nestle, P&G, and Coca-Cola are leading efforts to improve recycling rates of packaging plastics, which account for about 33% of all annual plastic production. By 2025, Nestle aims to use only recyclable plastic and reduce virgin plastic use by 33%. P&G has set a target of 50% cuts for virgin plastic use and 100% recyclability by 2030. Coca-Cola plans to use only recyclable packaging material by 2025, with at least 50% of recycled material in packaging.

The plastic problem is vast and complex, but innovation offers a glimmer of hope. Advanced recycling technologies and next-generation bioplastics present promising solutions to tackle the environmental challenges posed by plastic waste. With industry leaders committing to significant changes and governments implementing supportive policies, the future of plastic production and recycling looks more sustainable. However, achieving these goals will require concerted efforts from all stakeholders, from governments and industries to consumers. As we move forward, the key will be to adopt and scale these innovative solutions, ensuring a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future for generations to come.

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