In 2022, Mondelēz International intends to start packaging its Philadelphia brand cream cheese in tubs made from chemically recycled plastics. The packaging maker Berry Global will mold the containers. Petrochemical giant Sabic will supply the polypropylene. And the start-up Plastic Energy will produce feedstock for that polypropylene from postconsumer plastics at a plant it is constructing on Sabic’s site in Geleen, the Netherlands.
“You cannot achieve a circular economy on your own. A circular economy requires partnering up- and downstream,” says Robert Flores, vice president of sustainability at Berry, for which the project is its first in chemical recycling. “And obviously, as such a well-known global company, Mondelēz International was an ideal partner to launch this material with.”
Mondelēz isn’t the only multinational firm promising high-profile business to start-ups, some of which haven’t even built their first recycling plants yet. Food, beverage, and consumer product companies—under fire to do something about mounting plastic waste—are clamoring to set up relationships like this. They have embraced chemical recycling as a means of incorporating renewable content without the performance compromises common with current recycling methods. Seeing a market, recycling companies will spend billions of dollars on recycling projects in the US and Europe in the 2020s.
But that very embrace makes environmentalists suspicious. They contend that the plastics industry is using chemical recycling to appear to be doing something about plastic waste without addressing the core problem—overdependence on plastics. Chemical recycling, environmentalists say, isn’t as circular as industry claims. And as a means of disposing of plastics, the method won’t scale up fast enough to make much of a dent in the plastics that are piling up.