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The Technologies That Could Power a Plastic Waste Circular Economy

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The Alliance
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In tackling the plastic waste challenge, a common thread emerges for players across the value chain: the need for technologies that can redefine the capability and capacity of firms to effect change. Technical experts from our One Take video series share more.

January 11, 2023
8 min
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In this article based on our One Take video series, we speak with technical experts from our member companies about issues and opportunities that are currently top of mind when they tackle the plastic waste challenge. The Alliance plays a key role in convening different players across the plastic value chain to help accelerate the all-important transition to circularity.

The plastics value chain faces challenges in its transition to a circular economy ranging from hard-to-recycle and contaminated materials to having a lack of reliable data on where plastics end up after use. In tackling these different issues, a common thread emerges: the need for technologies that can redefine the capability and capacity of firms to effect change. Previously impossible options have increasingly become potentially viable, and even profitable, in establishing more circular processes.

Designing for Circularity

Digital technology, for example, is already starting to alter the very fundamentals of how firms approach plastic packaging design and production, helping identify hidden inefficiencies and opportunities for more sustainable production.

"There's a lot of room for improvement in both the packaging we create and the processes that guide that creation process," says Dr. Paige Marie Morse, Sustainability Advisor at Aspen Technology. "And digital tools can play a substantial role in finding those areas for improvement."

Many of AspenTech's customers hail from the energy and materials sectors, producing either plastic feedstocks from crude oil, or specialised plastics for packaging and other consumer applications. Those producers must balance an increasingly complex range of considerations in their design and production processes, from recycling efficiency to carbon emissions reduction. Digital tools like AI or simulations—so-called "Industry 4.0" technologies—offer a clearer path through that complexity.

To help sort of plastic packaging accurately at scale, the Alliance’s HolyGrail2.0 project uses digital watermarks. These imperceptible postage stamp-sized codes carry information that can be detected by high-resolution cameras, enabling more granular sorting at recycling centres.

"When people got started with the concept of Industry 4.0, it was very much driven by, how can I be more cost effective?" Morse says. "And now it's also, how can I be more feedstock effective and think about waste and emissions reduction?

"The right tools will let you simulate the process, integrate the data you're getting from lab experiments about the performance, and then come up with a better process. From there, you can track emissions with all the different alternatives you're thinking about, or the waste that's generated by your various alternatives.”

Closing the Loop on Plastic Waste

When it comes to reducing plastic waste, digital technology's impact is also playing a growing role in how companies track where their materials end up, and subsequently ensure they remain part of a growing circular economy for plastic waste.

"Much of our work revolves around finding packaging materials and recycling methods that lend themselves to more circular usage," says Ron Cotterman, Vice President of Sustainability Innovation & Strategy at Sealed Air. "We're looking at ways to incorporate digital information into the packaging itself, through printing or labels or even digital watermarks."

While digital watermarks and other systems can provide much-needed visibility into where that waste ends up, Sealed Air still faces one other challenge to its ambitious goals for recyclable, reusable, and renewable packaging—managing the materials themselves.

Sealed Air’s packaging protects food, e-commerce purchases and other items during transport and distribution, calling for high-performance materials that may sometimes be resource intensive or hard to recycle (images from Sealed Air)

"We're dealing with thin plastic films which, even though they're very efficient in packaging products and enabling the supply chain, are much harder to recycle because of their lightweight character," Cotterman explains. "And on the food packaging side, we're dealing with multiple layers of different plastics which can prove challenging to segregate after usage."

"What we have found, however, is that advanced recycling techniques, such as pyrolysis, are very capable of taking those materials and converting them back into a product that can be recycled again."

Advancing Recycling's Potential

Pushing those techniques even further is part of Ron Abbott's job. As Sustainability Technology Manager of Chevron Philips Chemical, Abbott's work focuses on improving the quality and yield of advanced recycling methods.

"Advanced recycling has proven to be an outstanding way to take difficult-to-recycle materials, convert them back to a liquid that we can then use as a feedstock," says Abbott. "From there we can use our core competencies as a company for upgrading feedstocks into petrochemical uses, such as circular ethylene, and then circular polyethylene."

Abbott's work increasingly revolves around pyrolysis, which heats plastic waste in an oxygen-free environment to break down the plastic into its constituent parts. This complements mechanical recycling, as both approaches are needed to maximise recycling. There's no expectation of a one-size-fits-all approach to recycling, nor should there be.

"Mechanical recycling and advanced or chemical recycling have to work in tandem, and they have to be complementary," Abbott argues. "The different plastic waste that you secure and the intended end product will dictate what method works best to recover and reuse that material."

Existing technologies play different roles in enabling a circular economy for plastic (image from the Alliance's Closing the Loop project)

Selecting the right mix of technologies from what’s available, as well as ensuring each method achieves its intended purpose in the long run, requires expertise across a wide range of technical disciplines.

For Paige Morse of Aspen Technology, cross-industry conversations play a vital role in plugging these knowledge gaps. "When we speak across the value chain, we have such a better understanding," says Morse, who stresses the importance of starting and maintaining a culture of continuous learning and adaptability.

"Through my engagement with some of the waste management companies, I've learned a lot that makes us rethink the way we're developing plastic now. How about we change it in the future? How do we think about taking it apart so we can reuse it? And these kinds of dialogues are what we need."

Given the diverse backgrounds of companies and individuals joining these conversations, focusing on commonalities of purpose and vision can help make discussions more productive. "Are plastics going to be a big part of a low carbon future?" asks Abbott. "I think so. That means we have to find ways to collect this plastic waste and give it a new life. That's the innovation challenge of the day and that's what we're all working on."

"I think one of the things that I've been impressed with (as part of the Alliance) is that we all share a common goal: making sure that plastic waste does not belong in the environment," says Ron Cotterman of Sealed Air. "We really have come to understand how various members of the value chain all have to work together—that in our position as a converter, we cannot solve and address all the plastic waste challenges ourselves." As with most innovations, the whole ecosystem of technologies to tackle plastic waste, connected by growing collaboration and knowledge-sharing, is far more than the sum of its parts.

Hear more from our subject matter experts featured in our One Take series here.