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#Trending: Chemical recycling of plastics – the missing link in the puzzle to enhance plastics circularity

The missing piece in the puzzle to enhance the circularity of plastics.

By Independent Consultant Sreeparna Das

The mismanagement of plastic waste and the consequent flooding of our oceans and landfills have acted as a much-needed catalyst for the industry to urgently find solutions. Chief amongst them has been the acceleration of developments w.r.t advanced recycling technologies. So far, much of the focus has been on mechanical recycling but in practice, the recycling rates are too low!

Why is that?

The collection & sorting of plastics waste is quite far from being at the required level. And, the recycled grades often don’t stand a chance against their low-cost virgin counterparts because of certain technical limitations, such as:

➔ Quality concerns:

◆ Thermal & mechanical degradation of the polymers post melting and reprocessing steps.

◆ Presence of impurities (additives, pigments, other polymers).

➔ Limited applicability: Not suitable for more complex, mixed plastic waste

So, how can we overcome these technical challenges?

Enter “chemical recycling”! Encompassing several different processes (solvolysis, depolymerisation, pyrolysis, and gasification), chemical recycling essentially includes processes that break-down the polymers into individual monomers or other chemical feedstock.

This offers several benefits vs. traditional methods. Additionally, some initial LCA studies published by CE Delft and BASF indicate that the CO2 emissions are less vs. incineration and energy recovery.

Unlocking the full potential of chemical recycling

Various actors across the value chain have become actively involved. And we’ve seen both, established players and start-ups, taking up the cause. First, let’s take a look at the recent projects and consortiums that key players from the chemical industry are a part of.

Launch of recent noteworthy chemical recycling projects / consortiums
Styrenics Circular Solutions (SCS) – Joint industry initiative across the value chain including Total, Trinseo & INEOS Styrolution to address PS recycling challenges. Collaboration with Agilyx to set up commercial scale chemical recycling plants in US & Europe.
ChemCycling – A project launched by BASF. Working with technology partners who use a thermochemical process called pyrolysis. First prototypes based on chemically recycled plastic waste have been produced – including food packaging. Testing of the material for use in an automotive part is underway with Jaguar Land Rover. BASF has also invested €20 million in Quantafuel that produces pyrolysis oil.
MMAtwo – A 4-year project funded by EU Horizon 2020 Research & Innovation Program with 13 partners including Heathland, Arkema, JSW Europe. In June 2020, the consortium completed the first 2 days of pilot tests on PMMA depolymerization into MMA.
PUReSmart – A 4-year project funded by EU Horizon 2020 with 9 partners across the PUR value chain including Reticel and Covestro. Focus is on chemolysis technology that allows revalorization of PU’s building blocks, i.e. polyol and isocyanate. Target is to recover >90% of End-Of-Life PU & to (hopefully) develop the first recycled isocyanate in the world.
Carbon Renewal Technology (CRT) – Developed by Eastman to focus on chemical recycling of complex plastic waste (flexible packaging, films…) into monomers. When working with polyesters, glycolysis or methanolysis is used. In 2020, Tritan Renew copolyester with 50% chemical recycled plastic was commercially launched.
BP Infinia – An enhanced recycling technology designed to turn opaque and difficult-to-recycle PET plastic waste into recycled feedstocks. BP, as part of this cross-industry consortium, is working with ALPLA, Danone, Unilever and REMONDIS. Plans to build a $25 million pilot plant in the US announced in Q4 2019.
TRUCIRCLE – Launched by SABIC, with one of the focal points being the production of certified circular polymers from the chemical recycling of mixed plastic waste. Partnered with Plastic® Energy for their pyrolysis oil.
R Plus Japan – A new company launched by 12 Japanese Co.s including Toyobo, Asahi Group. Created to focus on Catalytic Pyrolysis of PET. R Plus Japan with Anellotech aims to commercialise this technology in 2027. A Japanese research project has also been initiated by Sumitomo Chemicals in partnership with Muroran Institute of Technology to develop a technology that uses highly selective zeolite catalysts to decompose waste plastics into specific monomers.

Next, let’s deep-dive into innovative technological developments from start-ups and their plans for commercialisation:

Complete review of the start-ups available in the full report.

Many of the projects are currently mid-way and several companies, at present, are involved in completing trials, developing pilot plants and are in the process of moving towards commercialisation. There are still quite a few known and unknown challenges to address. Also, the impact of the pandemic on projected timelines is unclear as of now.

Chemical recycling, alone, can’t put an end to the plastic waste problem but it definitely boosts our chances of achieving true circularity of plastics.

Needless to say, there’s a lot to watch out for!

Reference links

Chemical recycling and its CO2 reduction potential – Geert Bergsma, CE Delft

Life cycle assessment (LCA) for ChemCyclingTM – BASF

https://www.plasticsrecyclers.eu/chemical-recycling

https://www.chemicalrecyclingeurope.eu/about-chemical-recycling

https://cefic.org/app/uploads/2020/03/Cefic-Position-Paper-on-Chemical-Recycling-1.pdf

https://cefic.org/media-corner/newsroom/chemical-recycling-is-essential-for-the-eu-to-achieve-itscircular-economy-goals/

https://www.neste.com/products/all-products/plastics/our-approach/accelerating-circularity

Author profile 

Sreeparna is an independent consultant with more than 11 years of experience in the specialty chemicals industry and digital media. She specialises in mapping key trends and challenges w.r.t materials and technology for the plastics and cosmetics industries, with a special focus on sustainable & smart solutions that can accelerate the transition towards a circular economy.

Her expertise lies in editorial planning and strategy and in developing high-quality digital content to provide valuable technical resources for industry professionals. She loves to write and has published more than 20 articles. Sreeparna received her Master’s Degree in Chemistry from the University of Delhi in India, and was awarded the Undergraduate Science Meritorious Award in 2005.

For more information on the issues raised in this article, please contact independent consultant, Sreeparna Das at sreeparna.das.pro@gmail.com 

This expert view is part of BMI’s spotlight week on chemical recycling. Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of the Bio Market Insights’ editorial team and management.


If you were interested in this story, you may also be interested in the stories below.

Read: Spotlight on chemical recycling: Offering a solution towards a circular economy

Read: Ineos Styrolution and Agilyx advance US chemical recycling facility.

Read: Braskem starts trials on chemical recycling of plastic waste.

Read: UPM to invest in new biorefinery to produce wood-based biochemicals.

Read: Dow teams up with UPM to produce bio-based plastics.

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