According to the EPA, the U.S. recycling rate in 2018 was just below 9%. To put this in perspective, 3 million tons of plastics end up recycled, and 27 million tons of plastic end up in landfills. Globally, 220 million tons of plastic waste are produced annually, and only 30 million tons are recycled. There is very literally tons of room for recycling improvements to reduce plastic waste be it bottles, tubes or any other sort of container.
The addition of post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR) to packaging is a top priority for nearly all major beauty brands as they work to become more sustainable. In this age, consumers look for sustainable brands. As a result, industry leaders have begun to shift their priorities towards more sustainable products and packaging: implementing a percentage of PCR into packaging is a top priority to most. As much as everyone desires these materials, the amount of global plastic currently being recycled is not enough to fulfill this goal. Brands can also experience aesthetic issues when PCR is added into packaging, creating a hazy, tinted look. Despite rising pushes for sustainability, beauty brands continue to prioritize luxury and premium aesthetics over the potential impurities that come with more sustainable PCR packaging (as do consumers). For many beauty brands, advanced recycling could be a potential solution to this challenge.
The current predominant method of recycling plastics is called "mechanical recycling”. This is defined by The Sustainable Packaging Coalition as operations that aim to recover plastic waste through mechanical processes (i.e., grinding, washing, separating, drying, re-granulating and compounding). During this recycling process, polymers stay intact, which helps reuse the plastics and keep them out of landfills. A core point of mechanical recycling is that it does not change the molecular form of the used plastic resin. The mechanical recycling process sorts, washes, melts, and re-extrudes it into resin pellets for new plastic products or packaging.
There are issues with mechanical recycling that restrict the success of recycling rates. Specific formats, such as flexible and light-weight packaging, have a hard time getting recycled because it clogs grinders at Material Recovery Facilities (MRF) and slows the recycling process. Small plastic products and packaging below a specific size cannot be recycled (regardless of material) because they fall through filtration screens in the MRFs. Mechanical recycling is also highly prone to contamination, causing the quality of the plastic resin produced to decrease and become less valuable. This hinders plastic from being infinitely recycled, as is possible with other materials like aluminum.
Advanced recycling is relatively new and poses to solve many of the challenges that are inherent within the mechanical recycling process. The advanced recycling process can better process these "hard to recycle" plastics and repurpose the materials.
According to the American Chemistry Council, advanced recycling (also referred to as chemical recycling) refers to converting used plastics into their native building blocks, specialty polymers, and feedstocks for new plastics, fuels, and valuable products. Using advanced recycling to produce these outputs helps to maintain the plastics' value and conserve resources.
Inputs to this advanced recycling process include polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polystyrene (PS), polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), plastics from electronics, and other mixed plastics.
Advanced recycling changes the molecular form of the used resin. This process uses chemicals to dissolve the plastic or heat to bring the resin back to its original building blocks. The purified plastic resin is used in plastic products, packaging, or fuels. No combustion or burning of plastics takes place in this process. The processes listed above do not occur in the presence of oxygen, so emissions are considered to be lower than traditional recycling and are generally considered very low. The American Chemistry Council went into more detail about a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) on advanced recycling than the mechanical recycling process. When mixed plastic waste is advanced recycled, it emits 50% less CO2 than incineration of mixed plastic waste.
The Advanced Recycling process consists of three steps: Conversion, Depolymerization, and Purification. Conversion breaks down the plastic's molecular bonds, depolymerization breaks the plastic down back to its building blocks, and Purification dissolves the plastics and removes any additives. At the end of this process, high-value products are used to make new plastics (i.e., food-grade packaging) or chemical products and feedstocks (i.e., fuels with a lower environmental footprint).
Influential beauty brands are beginning to announce partnerships with chemical companies to introduce advanced recycling products into their packaging. Brands like L'Oreal and Estée Lauder Companies have notified future packaging to be made with advanced recycling materials.
The Estée Lauder Companies (ELC) announced that tubes made from advanced recycled materials would be launched under the Origins global best-selling mask. This tube comprises a circular polymer resin using SABIC's revolutionary, certified circular polyethylene and polypropylene advanced recycling technology. This partnership includes the strategic beauty packaging manufacturer Albéa to use recycled resins to deliver a high-performing tube experience.
L'Oréal has been working with Carbios since 2017 to develop the first bottle made entirely from PET derived from enzymatic plastic recycling. Enzymatic plastic recycling is a new technology for recycling plastics produced by Carbios as an alternative to mechanical recycling. This development allows all PET products to be made from 100% recycled materials and infinitely recycled. Biotherm will be the first brand under L'Oreal to utilize this new technology in its bottles which will be in production in 2025.
FusionPKG and Eastman Chemical Company have partnered to create beautiful packaging made from Eastman's new Cristal Renew portfolio composed of copolyester resins made with 30% to 50% certified recycled content. This unique packaging does not sacrifice the luxurious experiences that are important to beauty consumers. FusionPKG uses Cristal Renew in stock and custom packaging, including droppers, airless packaging, and other vessels that appear transparent. This technology bypasses most of the aesthetic defects of traditional mechanical recycled material, allowing Fusion to deliver innovative packages in clear packaging.
Advanced recycling will only be successful when it is scaled at large. Substantial chemical companies are beginning to invest in this new technology and open additional plants. These plants will work to break down tons of plastic per day. Plants for both depolymerization and creating fuel from mixed plastics will lead to the scale-up of advanced recycling.
The end goal of advanced recycling is not to take over mechanical recycling. Instead, this new process can recover used plastics that are typically not recycled today through the mechanical recycling process. These recycling methods have different inputs and outputs that differentiate the technologies and deem both necessary. For example, mechanical recycling excels at recycling rigid bottles and reusing this in pipes and pallets, while advanced recycling can better provide food-grade plastic outputs for packaging. Together, these processes can lead the world to a more circular economy.