A Breakthrough in Plastic Recycling Is Coming Up Short

By 2025, Nestle promises not to use any plastic in its products that isn’t recyclable. By that same year, L’Oreal says all of its packaging will be “refillable, reusable, recyclable or compostable.”

And by 2030, Procter & Gamble pledges that it will halve its use of virgin plastic resin made from petroleum.

To get there, these companies and others are promoting a new generation of recycling plants, called “advanced” or “chemical” recycling, that promise to recycle many more products than can be recycled today.

But so far, advanced recycling is struggling to deliver on its promise. Nevertheless, the new technology is being hailed by the plastics industry as a solution to an exploding global waste problem.

The traditional approach to recycling is to simply grind up and melt plastic waste. The new, advanced-recycling operators say they can break down the plastic much further, into more basic molecular building blocks, and transform it into new plastic.

PureCycle Technologies, a company that features prominently in Nestlé, L’Oréal, and Procter & Gamble’s plastics commitments, runs one such facility, a $500 million plant in Ironton, Ohio. The plant wasoriginally to start operating in 2020, with the capacity to process as much as 182 tons of discarded polypropylene, a hard-to-recycle plastic used widely in single-use cups, yogurt tubs, coffee pods and clothing fibers, every day.

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