Nestlé has pledged to use no non-recyclable plastic in its products by 2025. L'Oréal announced that by the same year, all packaging will be “refillable, reusable, recyclable or compostable.”

And Procter & Gamble has pledged to halve its use of virgin plastic resins made from petroleum by 2030.

To get there, these companies and others are pushing a new generation of recycling plants called “advanced” or “chemical” recycling, which promise to recycle more products than can currently be recycled. doing.

So far, advanced recycling has struggled to deliver on its promises. Nevertheless, the new technology is being hailed by the plastics industry as a solution to the world's exploding waste problem.

The traditional approach to recycling is to simply crush and melt plastic waste. New advanced recyclers say they can further break down plastic into its more basic molecular components and turn it into new plastic.

PureCycle Technologies is prominent in Nestlé, L'Oréal, and Procter & Gamble's plastic efforts and operates one such facility, a $500 million factory in Ironton, Ohio . The plant is Originally scheduled to begin operations in 2020, it would have the capacity to process 182 tonnes of waste polypropylene each day, a difficult-to-recycle plastic commonly used in disposable cups, yogurt containers, coffee pods, clothing fibers and more. .

But PureCycle's past few months have been full of setbacks. There are technical issues at the factory, shareholder lawsuits, questions about technology, and startling reports from contrarian investors who profit from falling stock prices. They said drone flights over the facility showed the plant was far from ready to produce new plastics in large quantities.

Orlando, Fla.-based PureCycle said its plans are on track. “We're ramping up production,” CEO Dustin Olson said during a recent tour of the company's factory of pipes, storage tanks and cooling towers in Ironton, near the Ohio River. “We believe in this technology. We've seen it work,” he said. “We are making leaps and bounds.”

Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, and L'Oréal have also expressed confidence in PureCycle. L'Oréal said PureCycle is one of its many partners developing various recycling technologies. P.&G. The company said it hopes to use recycled plastic in “many packaging applications as we scale up production.” Nestlé did not respond to a request for comment, but said it was working with PureCycle on “groundbreaking recycling technology.”

PureCycle's predicament comes as a result of a new generation of plastics struggling to keep up with increased global plastic production, which could nearly quadruple by mid-century, according to scientists. It's emblematic of a broader problem facing recycling plants.

A chemical recycling facility in Tigard, Oregon, a joint venture between Agirix and Americas Stylenix, is in the midst of shutting down after suffering millions of dollars in losses. The Ashley, Indiana, factory had a goal of recycling 100,000 tons of plastic annually by 2021, but had processed only 100,000 tons of plastic by the end of 2023 after complaints about fires, oil spills and worker safety. The total amount was only 2000 tons.

At the same time, many new generation recycling facilities are turning plastics into fuel, which the Environmental Protection Agency does not consider recycling, but industry groups argue that some of the fuel can be turned into new plastics. There is.

Overall, advanced recycling plants are struggling to reduce the approximately 36 million tons of plastic that Americans throw away each year, more than any other country. Even if America's 10 remaining chemical recycling plants operated at full capacity, they would still produce about 456,000 tons of plastic waste, according to a recent count by Beyond Plastics, a nonprofit organization that advocates for stricter control over plastic production. will be processed. This would probably be enough to raise plastic recycling rates by 1 percentage point, which have languished below 10 percent for decades.

For households, this means that much of the plastic they put out for recycling ends up in landfill rather than being recycled at all. Determining which plastics are recyclable and which are not has essentially become a guessing game. This disruption resulted in a stream of non-recyclable waste contaminating the recycling process and disrupting the system.

“Industry is trying to say there's a solution,” said Terrence J. Collins, a professor of chemistry and sustainability science at Carnegie Mellon University. “That's not the solution.”

Last June, it was a long-awaited day at PureCycle's Ironton facility. The company had just produced its first batch of what it called “ultra-high purity” recycled polypropylene pellets.

This milestone came years late and involved cost overruns of more than $350 million. Still, it seemed like the company had finally succeeded. “No one else can do this,” plant manager Jeff Kramer told local reporters.

PureCycle is an innovative technology developed by Procter & Gamble researchers in the mid-2010s but unproven at scale that uses solvents to dissolve and purify plastics to make them new again. This was accomplished by licensing the method. “It's like a molecular washing machine,” Olson says.

There's a reason the world's biggest users of plastics, Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, and L'Oréal, are excited about this technology. Many of the company's products are made from polypropylene, a plastic that is transformed into different products using dyes and fillers. P.&G. announced that it uses more than 500,000 tons of polypropylene annually, more than any other plastic.

However, these additives make polypropylene more difficult to recycle.

The EPA estimates that 2.7 percent of polypropylene packaging is reprocessed. But PureCycle was committed to using polypropylene in everything from disposable beer cups to car bumpers to campaign signs, removing color, odor, and contaminants and turning it into new plastic.

Shortly after the June milestone, a problem arose.

On September 13, PureCycle revealed that its factory suffered a power outage in the previous month, halting operations and causing a critical seal to fail. This means the company will not be able to achieve key milestones, the company told lenders.

And in November, Bleecker Street Research, a New York-based short seller and investment strategy that bets that a company's stock price would fall, said that the white pellets that rolled off PureCycle's lines in June were not. published a report claiming that Recycled from plastic waste. Short sellers instead argued that the company was only running virgin polypropylene through its system as part of a demonstration run.

Olson said PureCycle did not use post-consumer waste in its operations in June 2023, but it also did not use virgin plastic. Instead, they used scrap material known as “post-industrial.” Scrap is left over from the manufacturing process and would otherwise be sent to a landfill.

Bleecker Street also said it had flown a heat-sensing drone over the facility and found little sign of commercial-scale activity. The company also questioned the solvent PureCycle was using to break down the plastic, calling it a “nightmare concoction” that was difficult to control.

PureCycle is currently being sued by other investors who say the company made false statements and misled investors about its failures.

Olson declined to discuss the solvent. Regulatory filings reviewed by The New York Times show it is butane, a highly flammable gas stored under pressure. The company's filing describes the danger of an explosion, citing a “worst-case scenario” that could cause second-degree burns up to a half-mile away, and said the plant will have sprinklers, gas and gas to reduce the risk. He said that detectors and alarms have been installed.

Of course, it is not uncommon for problems to arise with new technologies and facilities. The plastics industry says if these projects take off, they will bring the world closer to a “circular” economy, where things are reused over and over again.

Plastics industry lobby groups are promoting chemical recycling. At a public hearing in New York late last year, industry lobbyists pointed to the potential for advanced recycling in their opposition to the Packaging Reduction Act, which would ultimately require a 50% reduction in plastic packaging. And in negotiations for a global plastics treaty, lobby groups are urging countries to consider expanding chemical recycling, rather than restricting plastic production or banning plastic bags.

A spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council, which represents plastic manufacturers and oil and gas companies that produce plastic components, said chemical recycling could potentially “complement mechanical recycling, recovering plastics that often cannot be recycled mechanically.” I can do it.'' ”

Environmental groups say companies are using an outdated strategy to promote recycling as a way to justify expanding sales of plastics, even though new recycling technologies are not yet ready for prime time. It is claimed that there is. Meanwhile, plastic waste is clogging rivers and streams, piling up in landfills or being exported, they say.

“These big consumer brand companies are not doing what they want to do,” said Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and former regional environmental protection agency commissioner. “If you look behind the curtain, these facilities are not operating at scale and are not environmentally sustainable,” she says.

A better solution “requires less plastic production,” she says.

Mr. Olson recently strolled through a cavernous warehouse at PureCycle's Ironton location, built in a former Dow Chemical plant. Since January, PureCycle, which has primarily processed post-consumer plastic waste, has produced about 1.3 million pounds of recycled polypropylene, about 1 percent of its annual production goal, he said.

“This is a dog food bag,” he said, pointing to a bale of woven plastic bags. “And these are the fruit carts you see at street markets. It's so great to be able to recycle all of that.”

No pellets were rolling off the line as the plant was dealing with a valve failure discovered the day before. Mr. Olson pulled out his cellphone and showed him a photo of a bulb with a black wire buzzing inside. “It's not supposed to look like that,” he said.

The company later sent a video of Olson next to white pellets flowing off the production line again.

PureCycle says that for every kilogram of polypropylene recycled, it emits about 1.54 kilograms of carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming. This is comparable to the emissions standard for virgin polypropylene commonly used in the industry. PureCycle said its measures are improving.

Nestlé, L'Oréal and Procter & Gamble remain optimistic about the technology. Nestlé announced in November that it had invested in a British company that can more easily separate polypropylene from other plastic waste.

The company said this is “just one of the many initiatives we are taking to keep packaging out of waste.”

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