Waste Plastic Recycling Faces Market Headwinds

Originally published on 26 July 2016 on IEEE Engineering360.

Plastics are almost fully derived from petrochemicals produced through the use of fossil oil and natural gas. Naphtha, ethane, propane, and other gases are used as feedstocks for steam crackers that produce olefins (ethylene, propylene, and butadiene) and aromatics (benzene, toluene, and xylenes). These make up the building blocks of most plastics.

“Commodity plastics are very easy to produce,” says Emanuel Ormonde, IHS Markit principal analyst. “The shale revolution and the very essence of cheap oil in North America has greatly increased the production of plastics.”

A plastic material, according to the Society of the Plastics Industry, is any material that consists wholly or on part of combinations of carbon with oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and other organic or inorganic elements, and that is solid in its finished state. In common usage, the terms plastics, polymers and resins are roughly the same.

Waste occurs in the producing, converting and consuming plastics and like materials. As a result, recycling has found firm ground across Europe in particular, with several regulations in place in an effort to ensure a reasonable recycling rate for waste streams such as end-of-life packaging, automotive waste and electrical waste. The major classes of plastics that are recycled include: polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), expandable polystyrene (EPS), and polypropylene (PP).

Plastics Industry Evolution

The plastics industry has evolved over the past decades, sparked by population growth and higher standards of living. The world’s annual consumption of plastic material has grown from around 5 million tons in the 1950s to nearly 100 million tons at present.

“The plastics industry does indeed try to push for ‘green initiatives’, but today’s cheap price of oil has made it where those companies want to be ever more profitable,” says Ormonde. Large companies that consume plastics, for example, Nestle and Procter & Gamble, try to use a percentage of recycled materials in their products.

IEEE Engineering360, July 2016.


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