Advanced recycling: turning plastic waste into resources

Every Australian generates an average of 101 kilograms of plastic waste per year, including 59 kilograms of single-use plastic waste. Consequently, much of this plastic is hard to recycle so often ends up in landfill.  Advanced recycling technologies could turn problematic plastic waste destined for landfill into valuable resources to tackle this issue.

It is suitable for flexible or soft ‘scrunchable’ plastics used for food packaging, such as food pouches and chocolate wrappers. These types of plastics may be contaminated with food or mixed with other materials so can’t currently be recycled.

What is advanced recycling?

Feedstock, molecular and chemical recycling are other terms for advanced recycling. It can recycle mixed, multi-layer, contaminated and flexible plastics back into plastic or other valuable products.

The process works by breaking down plastic waste into its chemical building blocks. A range of thermal or biological processes can then turn the building blocks back into plastics. Creating fuel is another use that reduces our need for fossil fuel sources.

The importance of advanced recycling

An estimated 130,000 tonnes of plastic leaks into the marine environment each year in Australia alone. Less than 12 per cent of plastic waste is recycled and about 85 per cent of plastic waste ends up in landfill.  With new plastic waste export rules in place, innovative technologies will be critical for supporting the increased recovery and domestic processing of Australia’s plastic waste.

These technologies have the potential to generate new markets for products in Australia by turning plastic waste into another resource. This would support plastic becoming a valuable commodity rather than a waste.  Applying this technology in Australia could improve the way we recycle and help Australia meet the national target of 80 per cent average recovery rate from all waste streams by 2030, and 70 per cent of plastic packaging recycled or composted by 2025.

There is an increased demand for recycled products. Australia could help meet global and domestic demand for recycled plastics. Advanced recycling has an estimated $120 billion annual market in North America, highlighting its economic potential.

How will it transform plastic waste?

We have released a reportAdvanced recycling technologies to address Australia’s plastic waste, to build awareness of advanced recycling technologies, how they apply to different plastic types, and the key factors to enable adoption and scale-up of these technologies in Australia.

Mechanical recycling processes currently recover some of our plastic waste. This includes PET plastics, commonly used for food packaging for example.

Advanced recycling technologies complement these existing processes and can improve recycling capabilities for harder to recycle plastics. It could process plastics that might be mixed up with other materials, or contaminated with other matter, such as food waste or soil. Additionally, the products of advanced recycling products can safely make food-grade plastic products.

Another advantage of these technologies is they can complement existing plastic collection and manufacturing infrastructure.

Plastic pollution that ends up in the environment can have significant environmental, economic and social consequences. The most deadly plastics to marine life are flexible plastics, such as plastics bags. Three-quarters of rubbish found on Australian coastlines is plastic.

Our report provides potential pathways for advanced recycling technologies to tackle the challenge of plastic waste and build Australia’s circular economy.  This research is part of our Ending Plastic Waste Mission in development. Our goal is an 80 per cent reduction in plastic entering the Australian environment by 2030.

CREDIT: CSIRO