This Is Plastics: The Future of Plastics: Plastic waste provides new opportunities for upcycled products


The Future of Plastics: Plastic waste provides new opportunities for upcycled products

In this installment of the Future of Plastics series, learn how researchers are finding innovative ways to create opportunities from discarded plastic.


Plastics possess enormous opportunity to create products vital to improving longevity, health, and quality of life. In addition to its flexibility, plastic also has the lowest environmental impact when compared to existing alternative materials.  However, the processes that allow plastic products to be recovered and recycled are just as important as the versatile needs they fill. Increased funding for innovative recycling research ensures that plastics can be recycled and upcycled into new products, creating a more circular economy.

Mechanical recycling is a vital part of our recycling systems. However, new, more complex products made with various polymers, like plastic packaging and tires, are harder to break down. Advanced recycling technologies, like chemical recycling and pyrolysis, use heat and gas to break down more complex products into their original building blocks. These virgin-like plastic polymers can then be used to manufacture new products or fuels. Together, mechanical recycling and advanced recycling technologies create a holistic circular economy – the backbone of any groundbreaking plastic innovation.

Giving plastics a second life

Advanced recycling technologies are gaining popularity across the world, particularly in Europe, as a sustainable end-of-life process for plastic products that create new opportunity from waste. In fact, according to a life cycle assessment, which maps the environmental impact of end-of-life processes, chemical recycling emits 50% less CO2 than incineration of mixed plastic waste, and the biproduct can be reused for new products.

These low-emission opportunities have spurred countless research projects that aim to find better, more sustainable, and environmentally friendly solutions to plastic waste challenges. Researchers at the Ames Laboratory’s Institute for Cooperative Upcycling of Plastics (iCOUP) at Iowa State University are working to discover new catalytic processes to recycle plastics made possible by a $12.8 million research award from the U.S. Department of Energy. The technology uses catalytic methods to break down polymer chains into original building blocks that can be then used to create higher quality products, like lubricant oils or waxes. While this technology is not yet available on a large scale, scientists believe it shows great promise.

Scientists at Purdue University are working with Hasler Ventures LLC to commercialize a new technology that converts plastic waste to fuel that could satisfy as much as 4% of the U.S. demand for gasoline and diesel fuels. Similar to the Ames Lab research, Purdue’s Low-Pressure Hydrothermal Processing innovation transforms plastic waste products into gasoline, diesel, and other fuels. With further investment, this technology could soon become commercial, making it widely available across the country.

Industry is a key piece of the puzzle

While academia and government collaboration is incredibly important to future plastic waste recycling initiatives, industry is also an active partner in these solutions. The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which brings together plastics and consumer goods companies across the value chain, recently launched a scholarship program focused on innovative chemical recycling technologies and business models that will award up to $20 million to eligible projects. Technip Energies is investing in Synova’s thermochemical recycling technology which takes dirty, mixed plastic waste and breaks it down into reusable compounds. As a bonus, the process also has a low carbon footprint and provides virgin-like plastic resin.

Brightmark, a waste solutions provider and innovator in pyrolysis technologies, will partner with SK Global Chemical to establish a commercial size plastics renewal plant using advanced recycling technologies in South Korea. The project aims to create a more circular economy in the region and help create new value from increasing plastic waste flows. In the United States, Dow is partnering with Mura Technology to upscale its HydroPRS advanced recycling technology that uses plastic waste to create feedstocks for new products, supporting a circular economy.


Efforts to explore the opportunities that plastic waste provides are vital to ensuring that no plastic ends up in the environment. Government funded research efforts, like iCOUP, are leading the way in supporting commercialization efforts for practical, effective technologies. Continued support and collaboration with industry and academia will only enable further innovations that can circulate all plastic through the economy as new products.

When announcing a new funding grant for the Ames Lab, former Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette called innovation efforts vital to “mobilizing America’s scientific workforce to lay the foundation for the nation’s future energy innovation, security, and prosperity.”

This is the true future of plastics: new products and new opportunities.

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