Several reports on the recycled plastics market are projecting increased demand for recycled plastics, including the latest one from Coherent Market Insights: “Recycled Plastics Market 2019-2027: Growth Rate, Market Drivers and Opportunities Evaluation.” The recycled plastics market and demand for recycled plastics “is expected to be driven by the increasing concerns for disposing of virgin plastic and growing awareness about energy savings,” according to Coherent Market Insights, which is headquartered in India and maintains a U.S. office in Seattle.

Infoholic Research LLP said in its report released Nov. 13, 2019, that it expects the recycled plastics market to grow globally by 6.8% CAGR, reaching a value of $66.73 billion by 2025. “North America leads the current market for recycled plastics with the highest per capita plastics consumption providing an opportunity for recyclers,” said Infoholic, headquartered in Bengaluru, India.

recycling profits

Most of the focus on recycled plastics has been on what is collected curbside from households or gathered up from marine environments, where plastic waste is thoughtlessly thrown. This has led to some consumers and various activist groups to wage a fight against plastic waste,  particularly single-use items. It has also resulted in a backlash from some in the media to reject recycling solutions, calling recycling part of the problem.

However, most recycled plastic materials come from two primary sources: Post-industrial waste and post-consumer waste. Post-industrial plastic waste comes from manufacturing plants that process plastics into products and collect the waste—non-conforming parts, runners and trim waste (in thermoforming and blow molding)—that the processors cannot use in new parts because of specification/quality constraints. Many plastics processors, particularly injection molders, however, do regrind runner waste and non-conforming parts and add this recycled material to the virgin resin at a percentage allowable by customer specifications. I doubt that gets counted in statistics on recycling. Post-industrial waste is in high demand because it is clean and ready to be reground into flake for use in new products.

Post-consumer recycling is the type of recycling that is most often examined when calculating the percentage of plastic waste that is being recycled. This is waste that comes primarily from municipal waste management recycling facilities that has gone through a sorting process before being sent to a plant where the recyclate is cleaned via a hot water/chemical bath to remove labels, food debris and so forth to make it suitable for processing into flake. Recycled materials from post-consumer sources are often unpredictable in quantity/volume, and are more expensive because extensive operations are required to prepare the material for injection molding new products.

Based on product type, Coherent’s report shows “polyethylene terephthalate (PET) accounted for the largest market share in the global recycled plastics market in 2018,” the last year for which figures were available. “Ease of raw material collection in the form of plastic bottles and easy recyclability are the major factors that are expected to drive growth of the PET segment,” said Coherent. That is followed by high-density polyethylene, low-density polyethylene and PVC, the fourth largest market by product type.

Coherent points out that “increasing usage of recycled plastics in various end-use industries such as automotive and building & construction, coupled with propelling growth of these industries, is expected to boost demand for recycled plastics, which will in turn drive market growth over the forecast period.”

Durable goods manufacturers can use conventional virgin and recycled plastic materials in their products with very little push-back from anti-plastic activists. Design for disassembly for durable goods such as vehicles has long been on the drawing board. 

With the demand for recycled plastic materials projected to increase, companies may be forced to rely on more post-industrial waste for materials. In a recent article, PlasticsToday questioned whether the push toward so-called “biodegradable” plastics would “sabotage” beverage companies’ use of recyclable plastics for PET bottles. That seems unlikely now that there has been a turn in the way some brand owners are recognizing that biodegradable plastics are not recyclable with PET and only degradable in a landfill (maybe) or left in the open environment. Additionally, it appears doubtful that plastics made from everything from mango and avocado pits to banana pseudostems, pineapple leaves, fish guts and crab shells can scale commercially to be a viable solution.

That leaves the recycling of conventional polymers as the best option. Both reports project good growth for the recycled plastics market. With the winds shifting back toward recycling and away from more pie-in-the-sky biodegradables and the even less promising “compostable” materials, these market reports appear to be on target.

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