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Are we on the brink of a recycling revolution?

A new report finds that 60 companies are making major strides in plastic recycling innovations, which could make it easier to recycle a wider range of disposable plastics.

Are we on the brink of a recycling revolution?
[Illustration: FC]

Only a tiny fraction of the plastic made today is recycled, and nearly all of it ends up in landfills, incinerators, or the ocean. That means that we just keep making more plastic. But new innovations in recycling technology are making a more circular economy more likely: When an old plastic container can be used to make a new container or other product in a closed loop, and old plastic suddenly has more value.

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A new report from Closed Loop Partners, an investment fund that works on building the circular economy, looks at the new technology coming to market. At least 60 companies are now trying to reinvent plastic recycling, and more than 40 of those already have commercial plants.

In many cases, the tech has been in development for a long time. Now, with increased consumer and regulatory pressure to tackle the problem of plastic, there’s more demand for these solutions. “The whole plastics issue has exploded in terms of the attention around it, which has allowed the market conditions to be such that more solutions have been sought after for plastics,” says Bridget Croke, vice president of external affairs at Closed Loop Partners.

Most current recycling tech doesn’t do a particularly good job of recycling mixed plastic. “You chop up the plastic, you wash, and then you remelt it, which works well in a system where you have clear PET bottles and milk jugs, but works less well for the complexity of packaging and textiles and lots of other materials that are made of plastic now,” says Ellen Martin, vice president of impact and strategic initiatives at the investment fund.

Some early-stage companies are tackling “purification,” or using chemicals or solvents to take ink and additives out of plastic containers like colored bottles, so the end result is essentially like virgin plastic. PureCycle Technologies, a company currently building a new recycling plant in Ohio, is using this type of process on polypropylene, the material used to make yogurt cups. Other companies use chemicals or enzymes to break plastic down to basic building blocks that can be used to make new plastic. Some others convert plastic into fuel–a process that is less circular but still cuts carbon footprints for buyers like airlines.

Now, with many of these companies in the beginning stages of operation, the question is how they can grow. “There are many that are operational, but they’re still in that early commercial stage,” says Martin. “So they’re proving out their models. And this is really an inflection point, because they’re at a stage where they need investment and partnerships that will ensure their success.”

Partnerships and deals are happening quickly. Both Coke and PepsiCo have signed agreements to buy plastic from Loop Industries, a company that can turn old packaging, carpet, clothing, and even ocean waste into new plastic for use in bottles. Multiple brands have made commitments to start using much more recycled content in the packaging they produce; Evian announced in early 2018 that it would move to 100% recycled packaging by 2025. The challenge is having enough supply to meet that demand, and for that more investment is necessary.

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“This report is also a bit of a call to action for the business community that [is] making these commitments–and those across the supply chain–that it’s happening too slowly today,” says Croke. “We need to accelerate it, and you need to be part of the investment that’s happening in the sector.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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