Recycling plastics requires less energy than producing new materials and relieves demand for fossil-fuel-based raw materials. It also saves landfill space and reduces environmental pollution.
Plastics recycling is limited to nondurable goods such as packaging. Deployed to meet 25 to 57 percent of demand, it could save half a gigaton or more of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by 2050—and mitigate other environmental damage as well.
Project Drawdown defines our Recycled Plastics solution as the production of plastic nondurable goods from recycled feedstocks. This replaces the conventional approach of producing plastic nondurable goods from virgin, petroleum-based plastics. Production from recycled feedstocks reduces waste in landfills and dumps, environmental pollution, and extraction of oil, and requires less energy than conventional plastics production. It is limited to short-term-use plastics, such as packaging, and does not include durable goods in buildings, construction, vehicles, etc.
Materials production is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. As consumption of commodities and resources continues to increase, so does the environmental footprint of extraction of raw materials. Recycled plastics have a significantly lower carbon footprint than virgin plastics, so increasing the amount of plastics produced from recycled feedstocks by increasing collection, reducing yield losses, and incentivizing or switching feedstocks from virgin to recycled, could have a large impact on the global carbon budget of materials.
To model the Recycled Plastics solution we: 1) generated a total addressable market forecast of the plastics market for 2020–2050, 2) forecasted a set of adoption scenarios, 3) compared these scenarios to a reference scenario, and 4) characterized emissions mitigation and financial impacts by comparing scenarios using climate and finance variables to describe the relative emissions and costs.
Total Addressable Market
The total number of functional units of recycled plastics demanded globally represents the total addressable market. This includes all technologies and practices that provide the same function, in this case production of both primary and secondary nondurable plastics. We used market projections for global plastic demand from a variety of sources.
We compiled total addressable market data in the Integrated Plastics total addressable market model. We identified the complete plastics market from Plastics Europe (2019), the World Economic Forum (2016), Breaking the Plastic Wave (2020), and Mosko (2012). We used Breaking the Plastic Wave, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and Plastics Europe data to determine the proportion of plastics that are nondurable goods and are within the scope of this analysis.
We developed plastic reduction scenarios using Zhen and Suh (2019)’s analysis, Borelle et al.’s (2020) ambitious scenario for waste reduction, Greenpeace (2019), Breaking the Plastic Wave’s (2020) potential reduction, and Becqué and Sharp’s (2020) dematerialization scenarios. The remaining plastic, after reduction, is available for allocation to alternative materials/replacement Project Drawdown solutions.
We assume that 10 percent of plastic demand must be met by virgin plastics due to technological constraints and specific quality needs. The remaining 90 percent of the total addressable market can be replaced by alternative materials (e.g., coated plastic), recycled plastics, and/or bioplastics, in that order of priority.
We estimated the quantity of plastics for which recycling is technologically and economically feasible and that can be used in nondurable goods using Breaking the Plastic Wave (2020), Becqué and Sharp (2020), Plastics Europe (2020), the Plastics Pact, and new EU regulations. We used the average, 55 percent of the total addressable market by 2050, as the Recycled Plastics solution total addressable market.
We developed two different types of scenarios: a reference scenario and a set of scenarios with varying levels of adoption. The reference scenario assumes adoption remains constant from the current year to 2050 at the current rate of 9 percent of the market.
We calculated impacts of increased adoption of Recycled Plastics from 2020 to 2050 by comparing two scenarios with the reference scenario.
Scenario 1: This scenario is based on the US growth rate in recycled plastics from 1990 to 2018. We derived the annual increase in plastic recycling from US Environmental Protection Agency data and extrapolated to global values based on consumption of plastic in the US vs. the world as a whole. Production of recycled plastics increases to 49.01 million metric tons (25 percent of the addressable market).
Scenario 2: This scenario is derived from Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastics Economy report projections that by 2050, 53 percent of plastics can be recycled. Combined with a 70–78 percent yield in the recycling process, this comes out to 90.87 million metric tons (57 percent of the total addressable market).
Functional units were defined as follows:
Conventional functional unit: 1 million metric tons of primary production
Solution functional unit: 1 million metric tons of secondary production
Scenario 1 projects a potential emissions reduction of 0.52 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions between 2020 and 2050 with a marginal first cost to implement of –US$48.5 billion and a lifetime net operational savings of US$0.
Scenario 2 projects a potential emissions reduction of 1.69 gigatons between 2020 and 2050 with a marginal first cost of –US$158.06 billion and a lifetime net operational savings of US$0.
Results from this solution are lower than those of the Reduced Plastics solution for a few reasons. First, recycled plastics still take energy to produce and therefore produce carbon dioxide emissions, while reduction in use of a material does not.
Despite this, recycled plastics can still save 0.52–1.69 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades. And the impacts go beyond just emissions reduction, because increased recycling means that there will be better end-of-life collection infrastructure, preventing loss to the environment and the detrimental environmental effects of ocean plastics and plastic incineration in informal waste management.
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