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Advancing a Circular Economy

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Advanced recycling has the potential to overcome technical challenges posed by mechanical recycling, paving the way toward a more circular economy.

Over the past century, plastics have grown from an inventive curiosity to a major industry. Society entrusts plastics to deliver safe food, reliable medical devices, secure transportation, and innumerable modern conveniences. The combination of high strength, inexpensive production, and low toxicity has propelled plastics into widespread use. Plastics are now the material of choice for a wide range of applications, from inexpensive packaging to durable, high-performance products.

The polyethylene pipe industry is an excellent example of plastic’s dominance. Today, 95% of natural gas distribution pipe installed throughout North America is constructed of polyethylene, allowing for the delivery of clean-burning natural gas to millions of homes. A 20-ft-long water transmission pipe that once required 22,500 lb of concrete can now be replaced by a 600-lb polyethylene pipe. Plastic piping also significantly reduces water leakage at joints. A 10-mile water transmission pipe constructed of polyethylene can save nearly 450,000 gal of water every year compared to a concrete pipe (1).

The numerous advantages of plastics have driven quick adoption in many consumer and industrial applications. And, the consumer class is increasing. A recent Brookings Institute publication estimates that the middle class, currently made up of 3.2 billion people, represents one-third of the global economy today. The middle class is expected to grow at a rate of 140 million people annually, totaling 5.3 billion by 2030 (2). This emerging segment of our society will demand the same modern and affordable conveniences of their economically advantaged predecessors: clean water, safe food, lightweight construction materials, and recreational equipment to use at their newfound leisure...

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