Can chemical recycling technology solve plastic pollution problem? | Emerging technology
Current use of plastics is unsustainable because of the enormous amount of discarded plastic waste that accumulates as debris in landfills, oceans and other natural life forms around the world.
Mechanical recycling, also known as back-to-plastic recycling in connection with plastics, has been in use since the 1970s. However, the amounts of recycled plastics vary geographically.
Lately there has been a noticeable increase in enthusiasm for chemical recycling technologies as a potential solution to the plastics crisis. Critics, meanwhile, point to drawbacks, including environmental health risks, inefficiency in the amount of plastic waste that becomes new plastic, and high costs.
TechNewsWorld discussed the issues with plastics industry experts to investigate whether chemical recycling technology has the potential to solve the plastic pollution problem.
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Environmentalists and proponents of strong sustainability all agree on reducing or eliminating the build-up of plastic waste. However, this is not an easy task.
While most of the plastics recycling in the United States is through the mechanical approach, industrial solid waste is sent to landfills, Jeff Brown, materials science engineer and quality and compliance officer at plastics maker Premier Plastics, told TechNewsWorld.
The US has a sustainability plan that mandates much of the nation’s recycling strategy and practice; and at the local level, including Brown’s hometown of Salt Lake City, most communities have set regional goals to guide sustainable development, he said.
Plastic waste is approached in a number of ways in the United States. Prevention (reducing waste) and reuse (recycling) are preferred to other, less environmentally friendly methods such as landfill.
Only waste that cannot be treated differently, such as heavily contaminated materials, may be disposed of in landfills. Because of this restriction, the majority of plastic waste is sent for mechanical recycling.
“Mechanical recycling is good because it has less of an impact on the environment than using new plastics. Recycling plastics saves materials, reduces water, saves energy, etc., ”Chris DeArmitt, Ph.D., plastics expert and president of Phantom Plastics, told TechNewsWorld.
This shows that legislative intervention plays a crucial role in influencing the circularity of material and in moving towards sustainable solutions.
As the demand for recycled plastics grows rapidly, more and more retailers, brands, and other stakeholders are working to close the plastics cycle.
Consumer goods companies like Danone, Pepsi, Procter & Gamble and Unilever have set ambitious goals to ensure that all plastic packaging is compostable, recyclable and reusable.
“Walmart goes to great lengths to be sustainable but does not invest it directly in chemical recycling, so it is an indirect link. But many other companies are developing their own sustainability plans that include using sustainable packaging, ”said Brown.
Mechanical vs. chemical recycling
Mechanical recycling is the best way to understand the value of plastic waste by turning it into other useful uses. The mechanical approach, however, has its limitations. Currently, only 13 percent of plastic packaging in the US is recycled, another 17 percent is incinerated and 70 percent is landfilled.
“Ordinary mechanical recycling is the most environmentally friendly, proven and works for 90 percent of plastics. For the other 10 percent, chemical recycling could make sense at some point, ”says DeArmitt.
Chemical recycling offers sustainable solutions to address the current challenges of mechanical recycling processes by enabling the recycling of a wider variety of plastic waste than traditional mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling allows mixed, colored and multilayer plastic waste to be liquefied in a thermochemical liquefaction process and converted into a petroleum-like material.
“This is where chemical recycling comes in – they actually use a chemical process to separate different components. So this is an expensive recycling process – and it works – but it’s very industrial and very expensive, which is why most companies don’t do it, “explained Brown.
The question of cost is related to the supply and demand for recycled chemical plastics. In other words, the demand for recycled chemical plastics is still low.
“If I were a packaging manufacturer, I would buy cheaper virgin plastic than the more expensive, chemically recycled plastic. Because that’s how business works. Companies want to maximize profits and reduce costs. You don’t want to buy more expensive [materials] unless the consumer demands it, “he explained.
Brown further noted that chemical recycling is not a priority in the region. “I don’t know how many chemical recycling plants there are in the United States. But I don’t think there are very many. So it’s a) not available and b) very expensive.”
The local waste treatment strategy did not consider the chemical process as an option for plastic recycling.
Realize the full potential
With its ability to provide a range of options not available in current mechanical material recycling pathways, chemical recycling technology offers potentially innovative ways to deal with post-consumer waste.
However, the technology is at an early stage of development – chemical recycling applications do not exist on a large industrial scale. There are only test projects. Developers are therefore faced with the challenge of proving their potential, particularly with regard to how technology can fundamentally change the life cycle of plastics and significantly increase the amount of plastics recycled.
Although still in the early stages, Brown said that some companies like BASF are doing research, developing and actually implementing chemical recycling technologies on a small scale.
It will take a lot of work to scale the technology to become more viable over the next decade.
“So, in maybe 10 years, this will be a little bit further, there will be a little bit better consumer adoption, and the research will be a little bit further,” Brown said.
Public private partnership
The plastics industry is preparing for the technology and the guidelines are being implemented. Ohio and Illinois are the last states to pass laws making chemical recycling facilities easier to set up by regulating them as recyclers rather than waste processing facilities.
Collaboration and innovation in chemical recycling is proving to be a crucial solution. Companies with chemical recycling know-how have no problem finding applicants. Industry giants such as SABIC, BASF, Dow and Neste turn to specialized downstream partners to gain access to chemical recycling technologies and outputs for their European production facilities.
Brown says chemical companies should work with governments and industry partners to promote these programs.
“You can push governments to pay incentives, put in place recycling programs, and also fund research. I think government and industry partnerships are probably the most important thing a company can do to pave the way for chemical recycling, ”he suggested.