Evaluating the Economic and Environmental Benefits of Deploying a National-Scale, Thermo-Chemical Plastic Waste Upcycling Infrastructure in the United States

19 October 2023, Version 1
This content is a preprint and has not undergone peer review at the time of posting.


Existing plastic recycling infrastructure largely relies on mechanical recycling technologies, which are capable of processing only a small subset of waste plastics. Emerging chemical technologies can “upcycle” plastic waste by producing high-value products (e.g., olefins that can be used to produce virgin-grade polymers) and are more scalable, as they can process a broader range of waste plastics (e.g., complex mixtures obtained from post-consumer and post-industrial waste). In this work, we study the economic and environmental benefits of deploying an upcycling infrastructure in the continental United States for producing low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and polypropylene (PP) from post-consumer plastic waste. Our analysis aims to determine the market (economy) size that the infrastructure can create, the degree of circularity that it can achieve, prices for waste and derived products, and environmental benefits of diverting plastic waste from landfill and incineration facilities. The analysis is based on a computational framework that integrates techno-economic analysis, lifecycle assessment, and value chain (supply chain) optimization. Our results demonstrate that the infrastructure generates a market (economy) of nearly 20 billion USD; moreover, we show high market values of upcycled products propagate through the value chain to create positive prices for plastic waste (generating significant incentives for residents to provide their waste). In other words, upcycling technologies open opportunities for residents to receive compensation for providing their plastic waste (waste is a valuable commodity in the infrastructure). Our analysis also indicates that the infrastructure can achieve a degree of circularity of 34% (relative to the total rates of residential plastic waste produced) and leads to significant environmental benefits over alternative waste disposal methods (decreases greenhouse gas emissions of incineration by 69-75\% and avoids the deployment of 86 new landfills over the next 50 years). Uncertainty analysis also reveals that the economy generated by the infrastructure is robust (remains viable) under various externalities (e.g., technology efficiencies, capital investment budgets, and polymer market values).


plastic waste
chemical upcycling
value chains

Supplementary materials

Supplementary Material
Contains description of data and methods used in manuscript.


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