Various plastic items arranged on a pink background.

A report from Google suggests that reaching a circular economy will require rethinking design, reducing resource consumption, recycling and other interventions. | Nevodka/Shutterstock

Google published its latest plastic circularity report, finding that both chemical and mechanical recycling will be needed to close the “plastics circularity gap” by 2040. The tech giant also pointed to taxing virgin plastics to help reduce waste.

The report was done in partnership with consulting firm AFARA and released March 18. This publication of the full document followed the release of its executive summary last year.

“Google and AFARA believe that to tackle the plastic pollution problem, we need to create irreversible momentum for a circular economy,” the report said, adding that “while the linear economic model has generated tremendous progress for humanity in a short period of time, it has also created great disparities, injustice, and environmental harm.” 

The report aimed to create a list of prioritized interventions to have the greatest impact on creating a circular economy. It follows past work by Google on plastic recycling, including a 2018 white paper on The Role of Safe Chemistry and Healthy Materials in Unlocking the Circular Economy and a 2019 landscape assessment of chemical recycling technologies with investment firm Closed Loop Partners, AFARA and nonprofit group GreenBlue. 

Chemical recycling, also called advanced recycling, breaks the molecular bonds in plastics and changes the chemical structure of the material. Google’s report identifies three types of chemical recycling: purification, decomposition and conversion. Purification recovers the polymer chains intact and, as a result, some purification companies insist they don’t fall under the definition of “chemical recycling.” Decomposition, also called depolymerization, breaks the plastic down into monomers, which can be used to make new plastic. And conversion is turning plastics into fuel or chemical feedstock. 

The study evaluated six polymers in three major regions of the world: acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), polycarbonate (PC), polyester terephthalate (PET), polyethylene (HDPE, LDPE, LLDPE), polystyrene (PS) and polypropylene (PP) in North America, Europe and Asia.

It found that 276 million metric tons of plastics are produced annually, with 93% coming from virgin plastic. Only 21 million metric tons, or nearly 8%, are recovered and recycled.

To reach a circular economy, the report said rethinking design, reducing resource consumption, optimizing the system to keep products and components in use for as long as possible, regenerating and preserving natural capital, and recycling more are crucial. 

Identifying interventions

The report said that modeling shows a set of strategic interventions can decrease the plastics circularity gap by about 59% versus what it would be if the world continued business as usual.  That’s a cumulative volume of 4.5 billion metric tonnes by 2040, the report said. 

Google’s report suggests that chemical recycling, specifically decomposition and purification, can close the gap by 20%, while increased mechanical recycling can close the gap by 19%. 

“Both of these interventions require consumer incentives for recycling, consumer education and awareness and designing for recyclability to reach the full potential volume,” the report said.

A tax on virgin plastic production could decrease plastic demand in certain packaging and products and close the plastics circularity gap by 13%, the report added, while improved inventory management through enhanced sourcing, storing and selling of products made of plastic or packaged in plastics can close the gap by 5%.

Consumer education and incentives for plastic consumption reduction provide the final 1%.

Having enough infrastructure is another critical part of closing the plastics gap, as is using multiple solutions at once, the report said. 

“It is essential to advance multiple solutions in parallel because the solutions that reduce the plastics circularity gap in 2025 will not be the same ones that reduce the gap in 2040,” the report said. 

For example, improving mechanical recycling needs to be the priority in the short term, but the report suggested chemical recycling will be vital in the long term to take care of mismanaged volumes.

Four interventions that are not high priority are reverse supply chains, plastics reduction policy, plastics substitution and chemical conversion, the report said, as they would be too difficult to put into place or not effective enough. 

In some ways, Google’s perspective on chemical recycling mirrors that of the Alliance of Mission-Based Recyclers (AMBR), which issued two reports on chemical recycling recently. Google recommended depolymerization and purification processes be pursued but not conversion technologies, which are often used to produce fuels. AMBR blasted plastics-to-fuel processes but said plastics-to-plastics chemical recycling technologies could be acceptable under certain circumstances. 

In terms of cost, Google’s report projected that the price of producing plastics through circular supply chains is 28-34% lower than through virgin supply chains, when averaged across 2020-40. 

But to reach that point, an injection of $634 billion to $995 billion in capital is necessary over the next 20 years, the report found. To put those numbers into context, the U.S. spent $441 billion on transportation and water infrastructure in 2017, the report noted.  

The document said the “type of systemic shift needed goes far beyond Google” but called on businesses to “lead the change toward a circular economy.”  

“Looking ahead, there is an important opportunity to determine how to quickly and effectively mobilize the vast amounts of capital needed to invest in the requisite infrastructure, technologies and integrated supply chains around the world,” the report said, adding that “each of us, every day, can keep the circular economy turning by choosing circular products and services for our own lives and playing our part to keep resources in use longer.”

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