The world recycles just 14% of the plastic packaging it uses. Even worse: 8m tons of plastic, much of it packaging, ends up in the oceans each year, where sea life and birds die from eating it or getting entangled in it. Some of the plastics will also bind with industrial chemicals that have polluted oceans for decades, raising concerns that toxins can make their way into our food chain.
Recycling the remaining 86% of used plastics could create $80bn-$120bn in revenues, says a recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. But those revenues will never be fully achieved without designing new ways to breakdown and reuse 30% (by weight) of the plastic packaging that isn’t recycled because the material is contaminated or too small for easy collection, has very low economic value or contains multiple materials that cannot be easily separated.
Think of candy wrappers, take-out containers, single-serving coffee capsules and foil-lined boxes for soup and soymilk.
The target: Polystyrene. It’s commonly made into products such as styrofoam cups, packing peanuts and rigid red picnic cups.
Trouble spot: Used polystyrene foam packaging has long been condensed and “downcycled” into décors such as crown molding or picture frames. Fully recycling used polystyrene back into the same material could reduce demand for oil and cut greenhouse gases even more.
The fix: Founded in 2006, Agylix’s technology breaks the polymer down to molecules, which it sells in liquid form to refiners that will bind the molecules to form polystyrene, according to CEO Ross Patten. Agylix’s technology can go further and convert polystyrene back to crude oil. It did that until last year, when low oil prices made it unfeasible to continue.
The challenge: Agylix, based outside Portland, Oregon, may find itself with a decreasing feedstock. There are legislative and grassroots campaigns in the US aimed at eliminating polystyrene packaging. Not only is it prevalent in oceans, but some public health advocates say it could cause cancer. Maryland is considering a ban on polystyrene foam packaging, and shareholder groups are pressuring Walmart, Target and Amazon to stop using the material for shipping.