During the 2018 G7 summit in Quebec, the Canadian Government championed the Ocean Plastic Charter, which articulates a number of goals to alleviate the environmental impact of plastic use. Among those include a minimum of 50% recycled content in plastic products, where applicable, by 2030 and the recovery of 100% of all plastics by 2040. Indeed, the Charter is not the only place where such commitments regarding plastic recycling can be found. The European Commission has also set a binding recycling target of 55% by 2030 for plastic packaging waste, which compared to 2014, corresponds to more than twice the amount of the total recycled material.

With all these targets in the horizon for the next 10 to 20 years, the question arises here is whether the current recycling technologies can give us all we need to meet our ambitions for managing the end-of-life plastic products. Of course, the recycling technology is one part of the solution, and other enabling factors, such as design for recyclability and collection systems, are essential as well. However, considering the limitation of the commonly-used recycling processes, it is deemed inevitable to establish new scalable technologies that can considerably increase the rate of plastic recycling.

Currently, the most common method for recycling plastic waste is through mechanical processes, which typically includes sorting, washing and grinding. The resulting ground recycled plastic can then be thermoformed into new plastic products. While being simple and easy to scale up, mechanical recycling only allows the reprocessing of the same material for a limited number of times. Since additives and contaminants are not removed and tend to accumulate, the physical and mechanical properties of the material degrades with each reprocessing cycle. Also, depending on the requirements of the final product, the recycled material cannot get the chance of being reused due to health and safety concerns.

Such drawbacks have encouraged the development of another path for processing plastic waste, known as chemical recycling. Through this approach, with the help of catalysts, heat, and/or pressure, a plastic type is converted into its starting material (monomers that can be repolymerized to yield virgin-like plastics), other raw chemicals, or fuels. Being capable of cleaning the waste at the molecular level, chemical recycling represent a valuable solution to produce high-quality plastic feedstock.

Despite their promise, most chemical recycling processes are not yet economically attractive. However, our commitment to building a circular economy which requires significant improvement in the end-of-life management of plastics has stimulated a great deal of interest and investment towards making the technology more economically and energetically favourable. One strategy is to combine mechanical and chemical recycling in a single facility where, for example, the residues of mechanical recycling could be refined by chemical processes.

The years to come are expected to see a growth in technology and value chain development with respect to chemical and depolymerization techniques. The adoption of this approach also calls for the introduction of new technical standards to facilitate the use of virgin-grade recycled polymer in the same applications of virgin polymers. Next to the advancement in mechanical recycling and sorting techniques, these efforts can pave the road for meeting our plastic recycling goals in the next decades.