• Since China stopped importing waste, Western countries faced an urgent need to improve their recycling methods.

  • The rise of ESG investment and the increase in single-use plastic occurred simultaneously 

  • Today, PureCycle, Alkemy Solutions, BASF, Biotec and Pryme all demonstrate leadership in recycling innovation. 

Innovation in recycling: Why Now and What are the Main Trends?

 Plastic recycling is having a renaissance moment – the last two years have seen an unparalleled jump in creative innovation and a remarkable increase in the number of patents filed worldwide. A month doesn’t go by without news of an original, seemingly far-fetched idea turning into a real-world product or solution.

What has heralded this giant wave of innovation? For starters, 2019 brought the Chinese Government’s decision to stop importing waste. It meant that Western countries could not export their plastic waste problem abroad anymore, leaving the trash - literally - on their doorstep.

Local and regional municipalities had to limit or close recycling programs, leading to plant shutdowns. Then Covid-19 came and with it, a spiraling surge in single-use plastic.

Plastic waste became a full-blown problem, and governments started paying more attention, allocating funding, and increasing regulation. Add the increasing popularity of ESG investment, some of which started flowing into the recycling industry.

Alkemy Alkemy Photo: Alkemy

A 180-degree shift in perspective – plastic waste as a resource

History teaches us that an unprecedented crisis can lead to unprecedented innovation, and the recycling crisis may prove to be a great example. The funding injection by governments and ESG investment propelled research and development, talent pool expansion, new ideas, and paradigm shifts.

Here are some of the main areas of innovations and category-leading companies pushing them:

Improving polypropylene recycling

Most plastic waste is made from polypropylene, and most polypropylene is difficult and expensive to recycle because of contaminants. Companies like PureCycle are developing technology to better separate contaminants from waste plastic, transforming it into virgin-like polypropylene resin.

Upstream Recycling

Today’s most recycling is downstream recycling, which means taking a finished product like a bottle and turning it into a basic product such as polypropylene pallets. These pallets are then sold and incorporated into a new production process. For example, a new generation of recycling companies like Alkemy Solutions , take plastic bags and recycle them directly into a finished product, in this case, protective surface sheets for construction.

Shortening a three-step process into one step to the finished product transforms recycling into a profitable venture. This constitutes a paradigm shift and could even wean plastic recycling partly from government support.

Bioplastics

Replacing plastic with easily degradable and nontoxic bioplastic has been a goal for the industry for years. Recently companies such as BASF and Biotec have made headway in developing biodegradable and compostable resins from various substances, from petrochemicals to sugars to starch. The main aim of most of these companies is to create biodegradable plastic that is strong and safe for use in food and agriculture.

Chemical Recycling

Recent development in the recycling space aims to replace the traditional plastic recycling technology, which has many drawbacks, including cost, degradation of the plastic, limited scope, and a high carbon footprint.

Companies like Pryme from the Netherlands develop chemical approaches to breaking down plastics into their constituent monomers, which can then be used to create new polymer-based products.

Final Take

Climate change is accelerating and action needs to be taken swiftly. Waiting for governments to gather the political will to deal with the astronomical responsibilities in the area of recycling and the environment was never prudent to begin with. It is therefore enlightening that numerous stakeholders embarked on a journey to secure a better, cleaner environment through innovation.