Which plastics recycling tech will dominate?

squashed plastic wasteThe economics of plastic waste recycling are rapidly changing, pointing to a future where both incumbent and advanced technologies will be used, but decisive advantages for certain technologies will emerge in particular regions depending on waste streams and legislation, according to a recent Lux Research report.

Titled “The Future of Plastic Recycling,” the report looks at four of the main plastic waste recycling processes – mechanical recycling, depolymerization, pyrolysis, and solvent-based recycling – and analyzes the factors impacting the economic viability of each. Lux points to a near-term future where no one technology takes a commanding market lead and where market conditions and global public policy will significantly impact each technology.

“The economics of plastic waste recycling are in continuous flux, with political and economic winds impacting the direction of the four main recycling technologies,” said Charles Willard, Lux Senior Research Associate and author of the report. “Each technology has its own set of factors determining its growth in the short term, and we predict growth in some areas and contraction in others, but not enough to dictate a particular winning technology.”

The report looks at four technologies:

Mechanical recycling – The most common form of plastic recycling due to its cheap and simple nature. However, due to its reliance on inexpensive plastic feedstock, it is particularly susceptible to dips in feedstock supply. China’s recent ban on plastic waste has increased that supply by 45%; however, the report expects global recycling capacity to increase overall, increasing competition and limiting short-term gains.

Depolymerization – Arguably one of the most effective plastic recycling techniques with its ability to convert polyethylene terephthalate into virgin-quality monomer precursors, the process is three times the cost of mechanical recycling and heavily reliant on low or negative feedstock prices. This likely means that even with an increase in supply, depolymerization will remain a niche form of recycling.

Pyrolysis – Able to address mixed plastic waste streams in ways mechanical recycling cannot, pyrolysis, though energy-intensive, could fill the gap in this area left by mechanical recycling. In the event that petroleum prices decrease, Lux predicts pyrolysis will alter its product distillation stream to target alternative chemical markets, partially insulating it from major market fluctuations.

Solvent-based recycling – Like pyrolysis, solvent-based recycling can address mixed plastic waste streams, giving it a natural advantage over standard mechanical recycling. However, the process has had contamination issues, limiting its growth to post-industrial waste, and its reliance on the cost of solvent makes it susceptible to market factors that could inhibit growth.