There’s an Explosion of Plastic Waste. Big Companies Say ‘We’ve Got This.’

By 2025, Nestle promises not to use any plastic in its products that isn’t recyclable. By that same year, L’Oreal says all of its packaging will be “refillable, reusable, recyclable or compostable.”

And by 2030, Procter & Gamble pledges that it will halve its use of virgin plastic resin made from petroleum.

To get there, these companies and others are promoting a new generation of recycling plants, called “advanced” or “chemical” recycling, that promise to recycle many more products than can be recycled today.

So far, advanced recycling is struggling to deliver on its promise. Nevertheless, the new technology is being hailed by the plastics industry as a solution to an exploding global waste problem.

The traditional approach to recycling is to simply grind up and melt plastic waste. The new, advanced-recycling operators say they can break down the plastic much further, into more basic molecular building blocks, and transform it into new plastic.

PureCycle Technologies, a company that features prominently in Nestlé, L’Oréal, and Procter & Gamble’s plastics commitments, runs one such facility, a $500 million plant in Ironton, Ohio. The plant was originally to start operating in 2020, with the capacity to process as much as 182 tons of discarded polypropylene, a hard-to-recycle plastic used widely in single-use cups, yogurt tubs, coffee pods and clothing fibers, every day.

But PureCycle’s recent months have instead been filled with setbacks: technical issues at the plant, shareholder lawsuits, questions over the technology and a startling report from contrarian investors who make money when a stock price falls. They said that they had flown a drone over the facility that showed that the plant was far from being able to make much new plastic.

PureCycle, based in Orlando, Fla., said it remained on track. “We’re ramping up production,” its chief executive, Dustin Olson, said during a recent tour of the plant, a constellation 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’re making leaps and bounds.”

Nestlé, Procter & Gamble and L’Oréal have also expressed confidence in PureCycle. L’Oréal said PureCycle was one of many partners developing a range of recycling technologies. P.&G. said it hoped to use the recycled plastic for “numerous packaging applications as they scale up production.” Nestlé didn’t respond to requests for comment, but has said it is collaborating with PureCycle on “groundbreaking recycling technologies.”

PureCycle’s woes are emblematic of broad trouble faced by a new generation of recycling plants that have struggled to keep up with the growing tide of global plastic production, which scientists say could almost quadruple by midcentury.

A chemical-recycling facility in Tigard, Ore., a joint venture between Agilyx and Americas Styrenics, is in the process of shutting down after millions of dollars in losses. A plant in Ashley, Ind., that had aimed to recycle 100,000 tons of plastic a year by 2021 had processed only 2,000 tons in total as of late 2023, after fires, oil spills and worker safety complaints.

At the same time, many of the new generation of recycling facilities are turning plastic into fuel, something the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t consider to be recycling, though industry groups say some of that fuel can be turned into new plastic.

Overall, the advanced recycling plants are struggling to make a dent in the roughly 36 million tons of plastic Americans discard each year, which is more than any other country. Even if the 10 remaining chemical-recycling plants in America were to operate at full capacity, they would together process some 456,000 tons of plastic waste, according to a recent tally by Beyond Plastics, a nonprofit group that advocates stricter controls on plastics production. That’s perhaps enough to raise the plastic recycling rate — which has languished below 10 percent for decades — by a single percentage point.

For households, that has meant that much of the plastic they put out for recycling doesn’t get recycled at all, but ends up in landfills. Figuring out which plastics are recyclable and which aren’t has turned into, essentially, a guessing game. That confusion has led to a stream of non-recyclable trash contaminating the recycling process, gumming up the system.

“The industry is trying to say they have a solution,” said Terrence J. Collins, a professor of chemistry and sustainability science at Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s a non-solution.”

It was a long-awaited day last June at PureCycle’s Ironton facility: The company had just produced its first batch of what it describes as “ultra-pure” recycled polypropylene pellets.

That milestone came several years late and with more than $350 million in cost overruns. Still, the company appeared to have finally made it. “Nobody else can do this,” Jeff Kramer, the plant manager, told a local news crew.

PureCycle had done it by licensing a game-changing method — developed by Procter & Gamble researchers in the mid-2010s, but unproven at scale — that uses solvent to dissolve and purify the plastic to make it new again. “It’s like a molecular washing machine,” Mr. Olson said.

There’s a reason Procter & Gamble, Nestlé and L’Oréal, some of the world’s biggest users of plastic, are excited about the technology. Many of their products are made from polypropylene, a plastic that they transform into a plethora of products using dyes and fillers. P.&G. has said it uses more polypropylene than any other plastic, more than a half-million tons a year.

But those additives make recycling polypropylene more difficult.

The E.P.A. estimates that 2.7 percent of polypropylene packaging is reprocessed. But PureCycle was promising to take any polypropylene — disposable beer cups, car bumpers, even campaign signs — and remove the colors, odors, and contaminants to transform it into new plastic.

Soon after the June milestone, trouble hit.

On Sept. 13, PureCycle disclosed that its plant had suffered a power failure the previous month that had halted operations and caused a vital seal to fail. That meant the company would be unable to meet key milestones, it told lenders.

Then in November, Bleecker Street Research — a New York-based short-seller, an investment strategy that involves betting that a company’s stock price will fall — published a report asserting that the white pellets that had rolled off PureCycle’s line in June weren’t recycled from plastic waste. The short-sellers instead claimed instead that the company had simply run virgin polypropylene through the system as part of a demonstration run.

Mr. Olson said PureCycle hadn’t used consumer waste in the June 2023 run, but it hadn’t used virgin plastic, either. Instead it had used scrap known as “post industrial,” which is what’s left over from the manufacturing process and would otherwise go to a landfill, he said.

Bleecker Street also said it had flown heat-sensing drones over the facility and said it found few signs of commercial-scale activity. The firm also raised questions about the solvent PureCycle was using to break down the plastic, calling it “a nightmare concoction” that was difficult to manage.

PureCycle is now being sued by other investors who accuse the company of making false statements and misleading investors about its setbacks.

Mr. Olson declined to describe the solvent. Regulatory filings reviewed by The New York Times indicate that it is butane, a highly flammable gas, stored under pressure. The company’s filing described the risks of explosion, citing a “worst case scenario” that could cause second-degree burns a half-mile away, and said that to mitigate the risk the plant was equipped with sprinklers, gas detectors and alarms.

It isn’t unusual, of course, for any new technology or facility to experience hiccups. The plastics industry says these projects, once they get going, will bring the world closer to a “circular” economy, where things are reused again and again.

Plastics-industry lobbying groups are promoting chemical recycling. At a hearing in New York late last year, industry lobbyists pointed to the promise of advanced recycling in opposing a packaging-reduction bill that would eventually mandate a 50 percent reduction in plastic packaging. And at negotiations for a global plastics treaty, lobby groups are urging nations to consider expanding chemical recycling instead of taking steps like restricting plastic production or banning plastic bags.

A spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council, which represents plastics makers as well as oil and gas companies that produce the building blocks of plastic, said that chemical recycling potentially “complements mechanical recycling, taking the harder-to-recycle plastics that mechanical often cannot.”

Environmental groups say the companies are using a timeworn strategy of promoting recycling as a way to justify selling more plastic, even though the new recycling technology isn’t ready for prime time. Meanwhile, they say, plastic waste chokes rivers and streams, piles up in landfills or is exported.

“These large consumer brand companies, they’re out over their skis,” said Judith Enck, the president of Beyond Plastics and a former regional E.P.A. administrator. “Look behind the curtain, and these facilities aren’t operating at scale, and they aren’t environmentally sustainable,” she said.

The better solution, she said, would be, “We need to make less plastic.”

Mr. Olson recently strolled through a cavernous warehouse at PureCycle’s Ironton site, built at a former Dow Chemical plant. Since January, he said, PureCycle has been processing mainly consumer plastic waste and has produced about 1.3 million pounds of recycled polypropylene, or about 1 percent of its annual production target.

“This is a bag that would hold dog food,” he said, pointing to a bale of woven plastic bags. “And these are fruit carts that you’d see in street markets. We can recycle all of that, which is pretty cool.”

The plant was dealing with a faulty valve discovered the day before, so no pellets were rolling off the line. Mr. Olson pulled out a cellphone to show a photo of a valve with a dark line ringing its interior. “It’s not supposed to look like that,” he said.

The company later sent video of Mr. Olson next to white pellets once again streaming out of its production line.

PureCycle says every kilogram of polypropylene it recycles emits about 1.54 kilograms of planet-warming carbon dioxide. That’s on par with a commonly used industry measure of emissions for virgin polypropylene. PureCycle said that it was improving on that measure.

Nestlé, L’Oréal and Procter & Gamble continue to say they’re optimistic about the technology. In November, Nestlé said it had invested in a British company that would more easily separate out polypropylene from other plastic waste.

It was “just one of the many steps we are taking on our journey to ensure our packaging doesn’t end up as waste,” the company said.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *