Leveling Up Plastic Recycling
The ubiquity of plastic, an oil-based product, is an environmental disaster. Even though we recycle some specific plastics, almost 95% of plastic products don’t get a second life due to poor sorting, coloration, improper cleaning, and a host of other specifications. What if we could minimize the need for new plastic by turning more existing plastic material – colored and opaque bottles, thermoform trim, polyester clothing, carpet, and even ocean plastics – into brand new PET plastic?
At The Registry of Aruba, we are scaling back our own plastic use, one bottle at a time. But we wanted to zoom out on the overall issue of plastic waste and consumption. How much plastic is out there? Where does it go? And what does the future hold for plastics?
Plastic products include everything from grocery store packaging and bags, home decor, bottles and food containers, to polyester clothing and upholstery material, pieces of cars and planes, toys and tchotchkes – almost anything you can imagine. An estimated 4% to 12% of oil and gas production is used for producing plastics worldwide.
And plastics don’t break down easily. While a single-use plastic bag can take 20 years to disintegrate, the more durable plastic found in water bottles and single-use coffee pods can take up to 500 years to decompose. Even worse: nearly 14 million tons of plastic is leaked into the ocean annually, where decomposing plastic becomes microfibers ingested by sea creatures that toxify underwater ecosystems and edible seafood. By some estimates, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
But many of us around the world tip our bottles and bags into blue recycling bins. Doesn’t that help? Well, relatively little: only about 5% of used plastic ever becomes something new, due to limitations in recycling technology. Conventional recycling facilities can only break down clear plastics and materials that have not been contaminated or begun decomposition. And in many cases, the costs of cleaning and preparation for recycling are greater than that of new production, disincentivizing recycling at all. In addition, fabrics like polyester are notoriously hard to recycle, resulting in fast fashion plastics in landfills.
Loop Industries, a Canadian chemical recycling plant founded in 2014, is changing things. By inventing a low-heat, low-energy proprietary chemical formula, they can break down plastics from any source – colored or clear bottles and containers, bags, upholstery, even tchotchkes – into virgin, food-grade PET plastic. They call this an “infinite loop,” because the plastics they recover can be broken down into their raw chemical components and used again and again as virgin material, with no degradation in the material’s quality.
The PET plastic created by Loop meets purity standards that allow it to be used in any industry, attracting major companies to commit their waste to Loop and plan orders for products made of Loop’s fully-recycled plastic.
“Think of it as a chocolate cake,” says Loop’s representative, Sheila Morin. “What our process does is essentially break the cake down to its base ingredients, chocolate, flour, sugar, even going so far as putting the eggs back into their shell. From there, we can take all of these pure ingredients to bake a brand-new cake.”
Now that they have developed the technology, Loop is rushing to bring recycling facilities online. With a capacity of 1 metric ton of plastic per day, Loop’s research and development facility in Montreal is already in operation. Larger facilities in the US and Europe are expected to open in 2023, and a new partnership in South Korea anticipates completing four recycling facilities in Asia by 2030.
How much can closed-loop recycling technologies like Loop Industries decrease overall plastic consumption? Research firm SYSTEMIQ estimates we could reduce our reliance on new plastics by 20%. In an analysis they call Breaking the Plastic Wave, they outlined actions to decrease overall plastic waste by 80%, including investing in more efficient waste collection, substituting compostable materials for single-use plastics, and an overall reduction in our use of plastic products.
As we think about more ways to reuse materials and reduce our consumption, we’re excited that recycled plastics are becoming more of a reality than ever before.