Advanced recycling is the use of scientific techniques to transform used plastics into fresh products that can be recycled repeatedly.

In other words, advanced recycling refers to a set of innovative technologies and processes that enable the recycling of complex materials. These could be materials, such as plastics, that are typically difficult or impossible to recycle through traditional mechanical recycling methods.

Advanced recycling technologies can convert these materials back into their basic building blocks, such as monomers, which can then be used to produce new materials or products.

Advanced recycling and packaging

The process offers the potential to drastically reduce waste and environmental impacts.

Many products, such as food and beverage packaging, are designed with multiple layers of different materials, such as plastics and metals, to provide necessary protection and preservation.

However, these complex materials can be difficult to recycle through traditional methods.

Advanced recycling technologies, such as pyrolysis and depolymerisation, can break down these complex materials into their basic building blocks. These can then be used to create new packaging materials. This can help reduce waste, minimise the need for virgin materials and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing new materials.

A new report

A report by the OECD estimates that by 2050, plastic consumption globally is expected to double, creating environmental and human health risks.

This resulted in overflowing landfills, with almost 80 million tonnes of plastic waste being mismanaged and leaked into the environment in 2019 alone.

With single-use packaging significantly contributing to plastic waste, there is a growing demand for more circular packaging options.

The advantages of advanced recycling methods for sustainable packaging

Advanced recycling methods, including solvent extraction, pyrolysis and depolymerisation, have emerged as potential solutions to the challenges faced by mechanically recycled plastics.

The use of thermochemical reactions in advanced recycling allows used plastic waste to be made into ‘new’ virgin plastic, circumventing the issue of downcycling.

This process is particularly well-suited to recycle polyethene terephthalate (PET), commonly used in packaging applications, and it can process two of the most popular packaging plastics, polyethene (PE) and polypropylene (PP).

Many chemical suppliers, packaging suppliers and FMCG companies, including Coca-Cola, Nestle and Unilever, have partnered with advanced recycling players and have started using packaging containing chemically recycled plastic.

Challenges facing advanced recycling

Despite the advantages of advanced recycling methods, some challenges face the industry. The true environmental benefits of chemical recycling are still being debated, with critics highlighting flaws in lifecycle analyses conducted by chemical recycling players.

Additionally, the economics of advanced recycling depends heavily on the individual process, infrastructure, government policy and macroeconomic trends.

There is also a question of building capacity to meet demand, with the current capacity for advanced recycling being significantly smaller than that of mechanical recycling.

IDTechEx sustainable packaging market forecast

The IDTechEx report, “Sustainable Packaging Market 2023-2033,” segments the market by twenty-one different materials, explores each segment’s current usage and potential for growth and identifies key players.

While chemically recycled plastics may prove to help improve sustainability in packaging, the report highlights that the packaging market will be pushed forward by multiple solutions, including mechanically recycled plastics, designs for recyclability, bioplastics and designs that minimise plastic use.

Advanced recycling should be seen as part of the solutions available to increase sustainable packaging, but it cannot be considered a magic bullet for the sustainable packaging industry.