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Paths to Circularity for Plastics in the United States

43 Pages Posted: 19 May 2023 Publication Status: Published

See all articles by Thomas Hendrickson

Thomas Hendrickson

University of California, Berkeley - Energy Analysis and Environmental Impacts Division

Baishakhi Bose

University of California, Berkeley - Biological Systems and Engineering Division

Nemi Vora

Amazon.com, Inc.

Tyler Huntington

University of California, Berkeley - Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab); University of California, Berkeley - Biosciences Area; University of California, Berkeley - Biological Systems and Engineering Division

Sarah Nordahl

University of California, Berkeley - Energy Analysis and Environmental Impacts Division

Brett Helms

University of California, Berkeley - Energy Analysis and Environmental Impacts Division

Corinne D. Scown

University of California, Berkeley - Biological Systems and Engineering Division; University of California, Berkeley - Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab)

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Abstract

In 2019, the United States consumed over 57 MMT of plastic with less than 7% recovered for reuse. U.S. plastic waste has increased by almost 20% over the last decade, driven by the low cost of virgin materials. This study provides an updated material flow analysis at a national and regional scale for all durable and single-use plastics in the U.S. The results of the materials flow analysis serve as inputs for a series of scenarios for scaling mature plastic recycling technologies and implementing advanced recycling technologies, incorporating both technical limitations and sorting constraints for current infrastructure and recycling processes. The results suggest that a maximum of 68% (24 MMT) of plastic waste could be diverted from landfills by scaling up existing commercial recycling technologies and the degree to which this diversion rate relies on thermochemical processes, such as incineration, is a function of future investments in improved sorting infrastructure. Reaching near-zero waste is only possible if processes that are currently operating at pilot and laboratory scale can be effectively scaled. Through this diversion, the availability of post-consumer resin stocks could increase by 22–43 MMT. Across all scenarios, source separation and sorting infrastructure are crucial to enabling this scaleup, as most regions in the U.S. currently divert less than 15% of their plastic waste to sorting facilities.

Keywords: plastic waste, recycling, material flow analysis

Suggested Citation

Hendrickson, Thomas and Bose, Baishakhi and Vora, Nemi and Huntington, Tyler and Nordahl, Sarah and Helms, Brett and Scown, Corinne D., Paths to Circularity for Plastics in the United States. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4451634 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4451634
This version of the paper has not been formally peer reviewed.

Thomas Hendrickson

University of California, Berkeley - Energy Analysis and Environmental Impacts Division ( email )

Baishakhi Bose

University of California, Berkeley - Biological Systems and Engineering Division ( email )

Nemi Vora

Amazon.com, Inc. ( email )

Tyler Huntington

University of California, Berkeley - Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) ( email )

University of California, Berkeley - Biosciences Area ( email )

United States

University of California, Berkeley - Biological Systems and Engineering Division ( email )

Sarah Nordahl

University of California, Berkeley - Energy Analysis and Environmental Impacts Division ( email )

Brett Helms

University of California, Berkeley - Energy Analysis and Environmental Impacts Division ( email )

Corinne D. Scown (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - Biological Systems and Engineering Division ( email )

University of California, Berkeley - Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) ( email )

United States

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