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Leading the Transition to a Circular Economy for Plastics

A profile of PureCycle

Like most environmentalists, big events like football games and concerts are a mixed bag of emotions for me. While I love watching sports or seeing live music, it kills me to see the amount of single-use plastics thrown away every time. For as long as I’ve been attending events I’ve been praying that someone, somewhere, would solve this horrendous waste problem so I wouldn’t feel the guilt that accompanies the joy of attending mass events. Last week my prayers were answered.

Part of the stress induced by consumption at large events is the unfathomable scope of our use of single-use plastics. The human brain hasn’t evolved to comprehend the use and disposal of plastic waste at the scale of a stadium event like an NFL game, let alone across all games on a given Sunday or in a season.

The best available estimates project that at a single NFL game in an average-sized stadium, we use over 67,000 plastic cups. That’s over 570,000 per team per season and over 18,000,000 in each NFL season. For a little perspective, if we were to line up the cups used at stadiums each NFL season side-by-side, we could cover over 33 football fields. While visualizing football fields covered in plastic makes this scale of use a little easier to fathom, this massive amount of plastic use is really just the tip of the iceberg.

Plastic waste on ground

This is only counting one type of plastic use (cups) at one type of event (football games) at one type of stadium (NFL). When we try to expand to other types of plastic uses (food containers and bottles), sports (baseball, basketball, etc.), and stadium events (concerts), it quickly becomes overwhelming. But what is crystal clear, is that it’s way too much plastic and if we don’t get a handle on it soon, our earth will end up drowning in it.

Circular economy for plastics graphicTo my relief, the company PureCycle not only has a viable solution to create a circular economy for these types of plastics, but they are also poised to scale it. In June 2022, PureCycle partnered with the Jacksonville Jaguars to implement their PureZero Program, which creates a circular loop for polypropylene plastics used in the stadium. From improving collection and sorting, through to recycling into virgin-like resin, the new processes bring the Jaguars several steps closer to having zero-waste Sundays by eliminating one of the largest plastic waste offenders — cups.

Currently less than 1% of polypropylene produced around the world is recycled. The main limitation of current recycling methods is that they are not able to remove odors and other contaminants from the plastics. PureCycle uses a method to wash plastic similar to the way a dry cleaner washes clothes, creating an Ultra-Pure Recycled (UPR) resin. Through their recycling process, color, odor, and contaminants are removed from the polypropylene plastics, returning them to a similar state as virgin plastics. The end result is a high-quality, recycled resin that can be used to produce new plastic products. Unlike melting or reforming plastic, with PureCycle’s technology, the plastic can be recycled, repurposed, and reused multiple times.

While the PureZero program is the first of its kind in football stadiums, and a considerable undertaking, it’s just the first completed pass in a long game PureCycle intends to win. They’ve started with a manageable scope — one lifecycle solution for one type of plastic and a partnership with one team. But they are moving fast and it’s not too difficult to extrapolate the impact of expanding this out to multiple types of plastics at various types of events. In fact, they’re already well underway. They now have partnered with 3 NFL teams— the Jaguars, Bengals, and Browns. Most recently they’ve also added the NBA team Orlando Magic.

From Plastic Waste to Renewable Resource Graphic

Graphic courtesy of PureCycle.

PureCycle announced the funding for its Ohio plant in 2020 and by the end of 2021, the Company had announced plans to expand operations by building several new recycling plants, which included locations in Georgia, South Korea, and Japan. Their processing facilities in Ohio and Georgia will have the capacity to process much more plastic than what’s generated at professional sporting events, so the PureCycle team is seeking to build partnerships with other organizations like schools, offices, and hospitality businesses that need help diverting their polypropylene plastic waste.

You can find the latest updates on their progress in the news section of the PureCycle blog.

David Evans is a freelance writer covering sustainability challenges and solutions. He writes to help companies and consumers understand the environmental and ethical challenges in products and their supply chains so we can find viable solutions for both.
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