No Single Technology to Dominate the Future of Plastic Recycling

Charles Willard, Senior Research Associate

The economics of plastic waste recycling are rapidly changing, pointing us to a future where both incumbent and advanced technologies will be used. However, decisive advantages for certain technologies will emerge in particular regions depending on waste streams and legislation. 

Our new report analyzes the factors impacting the economic viability of four of the main plastic waste recycling processes – mechanical recycling, depolymerization, pyrolysis, and solvent-based recycling.

Lux Research - The Future of Plastic Recycling Infographic CroppedClick here to download the full infographic.

The four types of recycling technologies we reviewed are as follows:

  • 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, mechanical recycling is particularly susceptible to dips in feedstock supply. China's recent ban on plastic waste has increased that supply by 45%; however, we expect 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, we predict 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 postindustrial waste, and its reliance on the cost of solvent makes it susceptible to market factors that could inhibit growth.


As the economics of plastic waste recycling are in continuous flux, with political and economic forces impacting the direction of the technologies, no single technology will take a commanding market lead in the long-term future. 

Each technology has its own set of factors determining its growth in the short term. We predict growth in some areas and contraction in others, but not enough to dictate a particular "winning" technology.

To learn more about the economic and political fluctuations impacting the future of plastic waste recycling, download our infographic here.

 

 

FURTHER READING:

- Download the Infographic: The Future of Plastic Recycling

- Blog: Chemicals and Materials in the Spotlight at Davos

- Blog: Cutting Global Emissions is Not as Simple as Greta Thunberg Makes it Sound

- Executive Summary: Waste Conversion Innovations to Enable a Circular Economy (Free Download)

Download the Infographic    Schedule Demo