Plastic recycling is evolving. The next step will be more like reincarnation.

At least 60 chemical companies are racing to develop technology that can return trash to its original hydrocarbon ingredients, according to a report released last week. The process — call it the unmaking of plastic — creates clean, virgin resin that can be used for new products, avoiding the need to pump oil for endless fresh batches.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for an industry under attack for producing a material essential to modern life that has grown notorious for choking the world’s oceans and killing its animals.

“If they don’t play an active role in this, they’re going to see brands and customers de-select plastics,” said Ellen Martin, a vice president for Closed Loop Partners, an investment firm focused on creating a circular economy. “It’s a threat to their overall business.”

A $120 billion market opportunity for recycled materials awaits successful technologies, according to a Closed Loop report.

Less than 10% of plastic in North America gets recycled, generating 1 pound of recycled plastic for every 15 pounds of demand, Closed Loop found in its study. That falls woefully short at a time when manufacturers like Coca-Cola Co. are committing to using more recycled plastic.

Pressure is rising on plastic makers to come up with new solutions.

“We won’t be able to get there unless we’re able to do something that goes beyond the traditional mechanical recycling systems we have today,” said Tim Dell, a vice president at Eastman Chemical Co. Eastman announced a commercial-scale operation to reclaim mixed plastic waste that otherwise would end up in landfills, with a second plant targeting polyester waste to follow.

The company’s initiatives join a diverse field of technologies that break down polymers using everything from microwaves, in the case of Ontario’s Pyrowave Inc., to enzymes, as pioneered at Carbios, a publicly traded French company, according to Closed Loop.

Chemical recycling could quadruple global plastics recycling rates to 50% by 2030, up from 12% now, according to a December report from consultant McKinsey & Co.

But while it could add to future profits, the switch won’t come cheap.

McKinsey estimates as much as $20 billion a year will be needed to improve waste-recovery systems, about one-fifth of the chemical industry’s average capital spending.

 

Kaskey writes for Bloomberg.