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Massive, new investment in chemical recycling may be a game-changer for film and flexible packaging

New investment in pyrolysis chemical recycling is creating opportunities for meteoric growth in the recovery and recycling of plastic packaging. Pyrolysis (pī-räl-ə-səs) is a type of recycling where scrap plastic is heated in an oxygen free environment and converted into a gas which is then distilled to a liquid. The liquid, called pyrolytic oil, can be refined into new plastics. While pyrolysis is not new, the pressure for global petrochemical companies to find end of life solutions for plastics is spurring huge investment in its growth. These new investments must be fed with vast quantities of scrap plastic to be successful.

The basic economics of recycling are simple – demand creates value and value drives recovery. As the demand for a recyclable commodity increases so will its value because there is increased competition for the commodity. As the value of the commodity increases there is more economic motivation to recover it from the waste stream. An example of this is the recycling rate of aluminum cans, traditionally the most valuable container in the waste stream, at over 50%, which is double the recycling rate of plastic soda and water bottles.

Film and flexible packaging (film and flex) are items like grocery bags, plastic wrap, freezer bags, and stand-up pouches. They are the fastest growing type of package - yet the least recycled. This is because film and flex packaging often contains multiple types of plastic in a single package. This makes it a difficult feedstock for traditional, mechanical recycling, which relies on converting a single type of plastic into a new product. So even though over 95% of a film and flex package is typically polyethylene (PE), the small percentage of other plastic types make it difficult for traditional recycling to convert it to new products, keeping demand low.

Low demand = low value = no economic incentive to recover it = low recycling rate

In practical terms, the small, resealable strip on our granola pouch causes issues!

Pyrolysis chemical recycling is promising to change this equation. Pyrolysis may be ideal for film and flex packaging because, while it needs over 90% of its feedstock to be polyethylene or polypropylene, the 10% of other plastics and additives doesn’t hurt the process. And investments in pyrolysis plants across the globe have exploded in recent years, topping over $10 billion and continuing to grow. All of these new plants represent massive demand for film and flex packaging.

Demand creates value and value drives recovery. The emerging, voracious demand of pyrolysis chemical recycling paired with the continued growth of difficult to recycle film and flexible packaging could very well be a match made in recycling heaven. We can’t wait to be a part of it!

In a future blog, I’ll discuss some of the challenges related to the recovery of film and flex packaging and strategies around filling the new demand of pyrolysis.


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