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Checking In on Plastics

When UK-based Unilever, one of the world’s largest fast-moving consumer goods companies (FMCGs), announced its goal to halve its use of virgin plastics between 2019 and 2025, we (along with Greenpeace and others) applauded that commitment. As of last year, Unilever reported a 13% reduction in the use of virgin plastics, achieved by purchasing more recycled plastic (now accounting for 21% of its packaging, compared to its 25% goal for 2025), and by reducing the content of plastics in some products and packaging. Against a separate goal, the company also reports having collected 58% of its 2022 global plastic packaging footprint for processing, compared to a target of over 100% by 2025. Unilever says its collections in India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and other markets have already exceeded the 100% threshold.

But as we have noted, a host of challenges to successful plastics recycling persist. One of these stems from a dearth of buyers and processors of recyclable plastic, perhaps most visibly represented by China’s refusal to accept any further plastic waste from US sources. This is one reason why commitments such as Unilever’s are an important step: they can help create a stronger market for recycled plastic, incentivizing better collection and processing.

One US company, however, is taking its plastic recycling to another level. Advanced Drainage Systems purchases recycled high-density polyethylene, or HDPE (think shampoo bottles and milk jugs) in its baled, unprocessed form. The company then recycles the plastic in its own plant before using it to make drainage pipes and other water management solutions that can last over 100 years.

In 2021, over half of Advanced Drainage’s plastics purchases were of recycled material; in 2022, the company says it used 28% of the recycled HDPE plastic bottles in the entire US. Last year, Plastics News reported that Advanced Drainage had become the largest plastics recycler in the United States.

These are serious numbers. But Advanced Drainage has its sights set higher: while the company purchased over 600,000,000 pounds of recycled material in 2022, its goal is to purchase 1 billion pounds annually by 2032. If we, as a society, can significantly reduce our use of plastics, Advanced Drainage could conceivably consume more than half the recycled HDPE in the United States within 10 years.

Alongside a 22% decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensity in 2022, Advanced Drainage additionally reports that 770 million pounds of GHG emissions were avoided through use of its products. This is because manufacturing concrete or steel pipe each reportedly generate 52% more emissions than the company’s plastic products, while PVC generates 32% more emissions. Advanced Drainage has now begun the process of setting science-based targets, to reduce its GHG emissions in line with a 1.5-degree warming limit. And in keeping with its focus on water management, the company uses a “closed-loop water design” in 87% of its pipe production facilities. In another nod to recycling, this means the same water is reused multiple times during the manufacturing and cooling process.

Solving the plastics emergency will take more than one company. But every movement requires leaders. While we work to drastically reduce our use of all plastics—while simultaneously reusing and recycling the plastic already in our system—we are fortunate that some companies are already showing the way.