The world produces mountains of new plastic every year. Much of it gets discarded after a single use. Very little gets recycled. Some corporations are making an effort to change that. I have recently come across articles about new sustainability partnerships the Dow Chemical Company has established to boost the plastics recycling industry.
As more and more investors look at a companies’ environmental, social, and governmental performance, more and more companies are establishing ambitious goals for sustainability.
Dow, a company everyone loved to hate during the Vietnam War, has emerged as one of the leaders in corporate sustainability. In fact, it was one of the early adopters of the idea, setting ten-year sustainability goals starting in 1995. It plans to spend about a third of its capital budget (about $1 billion per year) to decarbonize its operations.
As Dow leads, other chemical companies follow. That level of spending for environmental initiatives could become the industry norm.
On the other hand, a question I consider important remains not only unanswered but apparently unasked.
Dow’s latest plastic recycling partnerships
Dow recently announced a plastic recycling partnership with London-based Mura Technology.
Mura has developed methods for recycling kinds of plastic that conventional mechanical recycling can’t handle. It will use supercritical steam (water heated to high temperatures at high pressure) to cut long polymer chains into the monomers that form the building blocks of plastic. The whole process, it claims, can take less than half an hour. Dow will be its chief customer.
The partnership aims to accelerate development of a circular economy for plastics. The first of these plants, under construction in Teesside, UK, is scheduled to open in 2023 and is planned to process 20,000 metric tons of plastic waste per year.
The two companies plan to construct enough advanced plastic recycling facilities in the US and Europe to create as much as 600,000 metric tons of non-mechanical plastic recycling capacity by 2030.
In addition, Dow continues to develop partnerships for mechanical plastic recycling. For example, it is working with the French company Valoregen to build a hybrid recycling site. That is, Valoregen will conduct both mechanical recycling and more advanced plastic recycling techniques in the same plant. It intends thereby to increase both energy efficiency and output. Again, Dow plans to buy the output.
In the US, Dow has announced an expansion of its partnership with Nexus Circular. Nexus already partners with a Dow plastics recycling project in Atlanta. It will build a new facility in Dallas and Dow will buy the output.
Nexus also plans to build a Chicago-area plant to handle polypropylene and polystyrene, among other plastics. Most recycling facilities do not sort these plastics and, in the case of polystyrene foam, can’t handle it at all.
The unasked question
All these new projects have been designed to handle the kinds of plastics that standard recycling programs can’t. So where does the plastic that Mura, Valoregen, and Nexus process come from? Do they recycle post-consumer waste or only post-industrial waste?
I am aware that recycling collection in Europe differs from American practice. Americans place commingled recyclables at the curb. Europeans take recyclables to drop-off areas and sort them there.
I am not aware, however, of any particular plastics that European household recycle that American households don’t.
Now, I am not the target audience for any of the plastics recycling industry websites I have visited or any of the articles I have read. (And I have looked at a lot more articles than I have put in my list of sources.)
But where and how do the plants get their feedstock? It seems too important a question to pass over in silence. No corporate sustainability officer seems to have thought to address it in press releases. No reporter seems to have thought to ask about it.
Some partial answers
I have found only one small answer. Dow’s website has a video about the Hefty EnergyBag program, which started in 2014. It appears that consumers can buy special orange Hefty bags and fill them with lots of kinds of ordinarily non-recyclable plastics. Then, they put the bags in their regular recycling containers. When they get to the local recycling facility, workers there set the bags aside and send them to more specialized facilities for processing.
The program would be more impressive if it were more widely available. As it is, only residents of or around Atlanta, Omaha, Lincoln, and Boise can participate.
On the same Dow page, I find a couple more initiatives worth mentioning. Third-world countries lack the waste management infrastructure that we take for granted. Poor people collect trash and try to sell it. Some plastics, such as the kinds of sachets that contained ketchup or hand lotion, have no resale value and so remain on the street.
Dow has established partnerships with governments, NGOs, and residents in Nairobi, Kenya and São Paolo, Brazil. In part, they train trash pickers to look for plastics formerly worthless to them and take them to special transfer shops. There, they get paid by weight. The programs give them a dignity and income they’ve never had before.
The problem with plastic recycling
All of Dow’s partners in these new plastic recycling projects also partner with other chemical companies, such as Chevron Phillips or KBR. Innovative plastic recycling technologies can help plastic recycling work better than it ever has.
But the new technology would be much more impressive if more thought and publicity went into collecting plastic waste in the first place.
The plastics industry began to support plastic recycling in the 1990s. The amount of plastic it produces has only skyrocketed since then.
In the US, plastic recycling rates stand at a pathetic 9%. Europe achieves 40% plastic recycling, which is still not enough to make plastic recycling a viable solution to plastic’s environmental problems. In fact, plastic recycling doesn’t work. It never has. Many environmentalists suspect the plastics industry knew from the start that it can’t work.
Instead, we need to make less plastic and find alternatives to plastic for packaging. Chemical companies simply make too much plastic. Maybe instead of trying to become leaders in plastic recycling, companies like Dow ought to abandon plastic and look for ways to develop products that have a smaller environmental downside in the first place.
The chemical industry’s new green deals / Alexander H. Tullo, Chemical & Engineering News. June 26, 2022
Dow goes big on plastics recycling / Brian Taylor, Waste Today Magazine. July 22, 2022
Nexus announces Texas chemical recycling plant; Dow to partner on offtake / Emily Friedman, Independent Commodity Intelligence Services. July 21, 2022