The recycled plastics market has been projected to reach $50.36 billion by 2022, at a CAGR of 6.4%.2 In terms of mass, this represents an 25% increase from 60,896 kilotons in 2016 to an expected 76,229 kilotons by 2022 (Figure 1). What might be considered a relatively slow annual growth, considering public and political pressures, probably reflects the technical difficulties currently experienced with the recycling process. The uptake of plastic recycling has been severely hindered by complexities of sorting and processing plastic waste. In particular, when different types of plastics are melted together, they tend to phase-separate (like oil and water), causing ‘phase boundaries’ that lead to structural weaknesses in the final material.
Recent innovations such as using block copolymers as ‘molecular stitches’ have been proposed to overcome these difficulties, and may increase the utility of recycled plastics in the future. Meanwhile, the percentage of plastics that can be fully recycled could be markedly increased if manufacturers were to minimize the mixing of materials and eliminate contaminants. To help with this effort, the Association of Plastics Recyclers has issued a Design Guide for Recyclability.3
The main plastics that are currently recycled are based on polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polystyrene (PS). Although often limited by phase-separation – especially in the cases of PE and PP – recycled plastics have many applications in industries such as packaging, textiles, construction, automotive and electronics. Apparently, PET bottles are the largest and the fastest-growing source of recycled plastics.2 The majority of bottles are made of PET resins, which is the most commonly recycled resin and has the highest recycling rate in the plastics market. PET can be recovered and recycled repeatedly, and remoulded to produce new PET products. It can also be chemically broken into its constituent raw materials, which can then be purified and converted into new PET resins.
The negative environmental impact of using virgin plastics, growing consciousness of energy savings, and increasing applications across various industries are some of the major drivers of the recycled plastics market. In addition, world leaders across the globe have also come together to set ambitious targets for plastic recycling. For example, the European Commission has set a target for all plastic packaging on the EU market to be recyclable by 2030. Such targets are supported by national initiatives, such as the UK government’s declaration last year that, from April 2022, it plans to introduce a world-leading new tax on the production and import of plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content.
Targets and initiatives surrounding plastic packaging might offer one reason why, according to Markets&Markets, packaging is the largest – and the fastest-growing – market for recycled plastics.2 This industry most commonly uses PET and HDPE resins, which are easily produced from recycling plastics. They possess various excellent properties such as strength, thermo-stability, and transparency, which makes them a popular choice for use in packaging. Recycled PET is used for packaging bottles for detergents and various other consumer products, and recycled HDPE for detergents, bleach, household chemicals and motor oil bottles.
So does all this mean that global demand for recycled plastics might soon see a sharp up-turn?