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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

December 2019: Developments in steam cracking and pressure technology now enable the production of ‘virgin’ quality plastics from recycled plastic waste. This could allow for plastic manufacturing sites to transition to plastic collection and refineries within the framework of their existing infrastructures.


Ongoing research tackling plastic waste has developed a new method for upcycling abundant, seemingly low-value plastics into high quality products such as motor oils, lubricants and detergents. Generally, high-value ‘virgin’ plastic is re- and downcycled into plastics of inferior quality. The new method uses moderate temperature and pressure to transform plastic’s string carbon-carbon bond into high-quality liquid hydrocarbons for further use. In a similar manner, researchers have developed novel methods of breaking down plastic waste to a molecular level using steam cracking. Steam cracking produces gases that can be captured and transformed into plastics of ‘virgin’ quality. However, the studies recognise that the low production costs of new plastic disincentivises the collection and transformation of used plastic and highlights that in recent months, the price of recycled plastic flakes has surpassed the price of manufactured ‘virgin’ plastic.

Implications & Opportunities

Producing high-quality ‘virgin plastic’ from plastic waste serves a dual purpose and removes plastic pollution from the environment and contributes to a circular economy. Products from steam cracking or pressure methods could be used in motor oils, lubricants or waxes for industrial application and could replace plastics made from fossil fuels. This shift could incentivise current plastic factories to become reprocessing refineries within the framework of their existing infrastructures and while maintaining similar output levels. Additional revenue could be found in re-processing other waste streams such as bioplastics, thereby gradually phasing out fossil fuels in plastic production. The study calls for policy-makers to establish global governance and financial frameworks to incentivise companies to incorporate recycled plastics and dis-incentivise the inclusion of ‘virgin’ plastics.


Research on producing ‘virgin’ quality plastics from waste material remains at pre-commercial level and more research is required to demonstrate the process feasibility at larger scales.


Thunman, H., Berdugo Vilches, T., Seemann, (2019). Circular use of plastics-transformation of existing petrochemical clusters into thermochemical recycling plants with 100% plastics recovery. Sustainable Materials and Technologies, 22, e00124. doi:10.1016/j.susmat.2019.e00124

The Guardian. (2019). War on plastic waste faces setback as cost of recycled material soars. Retrieved from