• January 31, 2022

    Plastic Innovation Is Driving Climate Progress

    Chuck Chaitovitz

Plastic is ubiquitous in our society. Not a day goes by when we do not use some product and technology that is made with or packaged in plastics. 

However, too much plastic is ending up in the environment, and that’s of concern to all of us. The business community is leading the way in adopting innovative technologies and circular economy approaches to more effectively manage the plastics life cycle. This includes—promoting recycling and recycling infrastructure, designing products for recyclability, and incorporating recycled materials into products—while seeking to reduce and remove greenhouse gas emissions.

Lightweight plastic materials save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and recycling offers the opportunity to save even more energy. According to EPA, manufacturing goods from recycled materials typically requires less energy than producing goods from virgin materials and reduces emissions. Plastics play a key role in renewable technologies and batteries, so it is all the more important that we develop strategies for their responsible use. 

Policy Updates

There are several key policies that have been moving forward:

-- The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which signed into law on November 15, 2021, America Recycles Day contains $350 million and the provisions of the RECYCLE Act, including $75 million for public education and awareness efforts around recycling and $275 million for grant funding over five years for to implement key actions under the Save of Seas 2.0 for recycling infrastructure updates to keep plastics out of waterways and the ocean. The RECYCLE Act is intended to improve the effectiveness of residential and community recycling programs through increased public education and outreach.

-- The National Recycling Strategy was launched on the same day of the bill signing to drive meeting our national goal to increase recycling to 50% by 2030. There is an online platform on which stakeholders can contribute.

For the sector to meet the 30% by 2030 recycled content goal, scaling both traditional and advanced chemical recycling will be needed. Leaders in the House Science Committee have introduced the Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act and the Advanced Recycling Research and Development Act, and the industry has so far invested over $6 billion in commitments in research and innovation since 2017.

Congress is considering other policies to address these issues:

-- The RECOVER Act establishes a Recycling Infrastructure Program within EPA to award financial assistance to states, local governments, and tribal governments.

-- Save Our Seas 3.0 builds on the previous bill to address recycling infrastructure and marine debris.

-- Basel Convention implementing legislation would get the U.S. a seat at the table as issues around plastics, electronic waste, and other matters are developed by the international community. The Senate provided advice and consent during 1992.

-- The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works recently held a legislative hearing on the following bipartisan discussion draft proposals:

    -- Recycling and Composting Accountability Act.

    -- Recycling Infrastructure and Accessibility Act.

In the Executive branch, the Department of Energy (DOE) has already approved significant funding for plastics innovation:

-- ReMADE: $70 million plus matching corporate investments. This is a DOE initiative to help advance energy efficient manufacturing through improved resource reuse.

-- Plastics Innovation Challenge: $14.5 million to help fund and direct basic research into plastics recovery.

-- BOTTLE: $27 million for a federal partnership led by DOE to help advance thermoplastics and thermoset recovery by leveraging bio-based recovery techniques.

The UN Environment Assembly is exploring a global treaty on plastic pollution, which is expected to be discussed during the upcoming UNEA-5 meetings in February and March 2022. Industries led by ACC and the U.S. Chamber support this proposal and are working to build consensus among companies to ensure expedient development and implementation.

While all of that progress takes place in government, the private sector is moving forward with solutions. To highlight this work and discuss what will be needed in the future, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce convened a group of industry innovators as part of its EnergyInnovates webinar series on September 9, 2021. The recording can be viewed here.

The event featured—

-- Chris Jahn, President and CEO, American Chemistry Council (ACC)

-- Sheryl Telford, Chief Sustainability Officer, Chemours

-- Mary Draves, Chief Sustainability Officer and Vice President of Environment, Health, and Safety, Dow

-- Brent Heist, Director, Packaging Sustainability, Procter & Gamble

Chris Jahn discussed federal policy priorities for the sector, including a call for at least 30% recycled plastic in packaging by 2030 through a national recycled content standard.

A 30% target would require 13 billion pounds of recycled plastic to be recovered annually, and that level of supply is currently not available. Recent analysis from ICIS highlighted that emerging “advanced recycling” technologies—the process of breaking down waste plastics into their molecular building blocks—are “essential to meet our ambitious recycling targets,” such as EPA’s national recycling goal of 50% by 2030.

Jahn also underscored the importance of opposing proposals such as the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, in part because the bill includes a pause on new chemical recycling facility development, or the resin tax. These proposals ignore the potential unintended consequences, including increased greenhouse gas emissions and more plastic being lost to landfills.

Others on the panel discussed the ways in which their companies are investing in plastics solutions. 

Chemours is developing specialty, low-volume plastics making next-gen sustainable solutions possible. Efforts to address commercial, consumer plastics represent a solid, positive step forward for industry, communities, and the planet. Yet the unique properties of high-value, low-volume specialty performance plastics, such as Chemours’ fluoropolymers like Teflon™ and Nafion™, are essential in applications across a diverse spectrum of industries, from the hydrogen economy and electric vehicles to advanced sensors and 5G communications technology that will support smart cities. And as fluoropolymer chemistry helps realize carbon reduction goals, Chemours continues its commitment to responsible manufacturing and the development of value chain partnerships to increase recyclability and circularity.

Dow aims to be the most innovative, customer-centric, inclusive, and sustainable science company in the world. In 2020, the company set new targets around advancing a circular economy and protecting the climate by focusing on two closely linked issues: reducing carbon emissions and eliminating plastic waste through a number of actions:

Investing in key technologies—including advanced recycling technologies—to help the world recycle far more than it does today and use more recycled materials.

Helping our customers design for recyclability and  include recycled materials in their products and packaging—offering a broad range of recycled materials as well as resins, adhesives, specialties, and coatings that  enable more plastic packaging to be recycled.

Collaborating with organizations focused on keeping waste out of the environment and driving investment and innovation in recycling technologies, such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, Circulate Capital, Closed Loop Circular Plastics Fun, The Recycling Partnership, Materials Recovery for the Future, Ocean Plastics Leadership Network, and the Trash Free Seas Alliance.

Procter & Gamble is involved in innovation across the recycling value stream to help ensure that packaging materials can be recovered at the end of use to support a circular economy. 

Invented a solvent-based process to clean recycled polypropylene to near virgin quality without breaking the polymer chain. This enables high value uses for the recycled polypropylene and expands end markets for the recovered material. P&G has licensed the technology to PureCycle Technologies to scale production and provide access to the resulting high-quality propylene to the entire packaging industry.

Collaborated on the HolyGrail 2.0 to enable better sorting of recyclables by adopting digital watermarks in packaging artwork. Digital Watermarks HolyGrail 2.0 is driven by AIM-European Brands Association and powered by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. The watermarks are virtually invisible to consumers but enable better sorting of collected packaging to help ensure that it can be recycled at the highest value. Digital watermarking also enables consumer interaction with packaging through smartphone applications and offers benefits throughout the retail supply chain.

Engaged with cross-industry organizations, such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, The Recycling Partnership, and Material Recovery for the Future, forging needed partnerships to find solutions for a circular economy to help strengthen the recycling value stream.

The Chamber Foundation has been engaging with companies on other representative innovations:

-- Automobile lightweighting. A 10% reduction in vehicle weight can result in a 6%–8% fuel economy improvement. Replacing cast iron and traditional steel components with lightweight materials, such as polymer composites, can directly reduce the weight up to 50%t and therefore reduce a vehicle’s fuel consumption. Using lightweight components and high efficiency engines enabled by advanced materials in one quarter of the U.S. fleet could save more than 5 billion gallons of fuel annually by 2030. 

-- EkoMats can mechanically recycle flexible plastics into necessary agricultural mats and event pads.

-- HydroBlox Technologies can mechanically recycle mixed thermoforms to address water drainage issues—another potential infrastructure opportunity.

-- Polymer Asphalt, developed in Michigan, is an initiative by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, working with local stakeholders to use discarded plastics in road construction. Third-party research indicates that polymer asphalts are more durable and produce less greenhouse gases than traditional asphalt.”

Here is a recent blog on financing innovations as well.

We urge Congress and the Administration to advance these commonsense sustainability policies as soon as possible.