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How We Recycle Plastics Is Changing

But perhaps not fast enough

 

While plastic in its myriad forms is ingrained in every aspect of our lives, ‘plastiphobia’ has entered the vernacular as a condition facing some members of the public, and regulators are cracking down hard on an industry that is already managing a number of complex challenges.

 

Yet plastics remain at the crux of modern living, revealing how innovations in recycling may not be coming fast enough to keep up with our current levels of plastic waste. This means that the problem may not be with plastic in general, but rather more specifically with our methods of recycling plastic.

 

The plastics industry has been forced to become acutely self-aware due to the shifting perspective among the public and regulators.

 

The plastics industry has been forced to become acutely self-aware due to the shifting perspective among the public and regulators. Directive targets must be met, new processes researched, developed and launched, consumer education delivered, and consumer expectations met. And looming over all of this is the specter of sustainability.

 

Speaking at Circularity for Polymers: The ICIS Recycling Conference in Berlin, Paul Hodges, Chairman of International E-Chem, said there’s an awful lot of work to do in a very limited amount of time.

 

A Paradigm Shift in the Industry

“It’s very clear there’s a paradigm shift going on in the industry. Companies are waking up to the fact that waste plastics are a really big issue—one that’s not going to go away. Single-use plastics are going to be in the firing line for the next few years, and business models simply must change,” he explained.

 

Hodges added that at the core of the shift required is the fact that people don’t know how to recycle plastics, despite understanding why we need to. He explained, “We haven’t got the technology available. We haven’t got the collection processes setup. We need to move away from throwing rubbish at waste sites and focus instead on developing resource centers, based on a distributed network of local chemical recycling plants.”

 

A shift to smaller, local chemical recycling plants that are more efficient and effective at separating out the different types of plastics is certainly on the horizon, but it is currently only a nascent industry.

 

A shift to smaller, local chemical recycling plants that are more efficient and effective at separating out the different types of plastics is certainly on the horizon, but it is currently only a nascent industry.

 

Richard Daley, Managing Director of ReNew ELP, is at the cutting edge of chemical recycling. ReNew ELP is in the final stages of development on the first of four chemical recycling processing lines, with each line capable of processing 20,000 tonnes a year. Their Cat-HTRTM technology utilises what Daley describes as “a unique hydrothermal upgrading process, using supercritical water to break down plastics into reusable, valuable chemicals and oils.”

 

Interestingly, target feedstock for processing is the residual plastic after mechanical recycling has taken place, such as flexible, multi-layer films. For this reason, ReNew ELP sees itself as complementary to the mechanical recycling process.

 

Echoing Daley’s sentiment, ICIS’ Senior Editor, Recycling, Mark Victory, said, “Chemical recovery is better in theory—but there are issues with cost and yield. The same challenges of collection remain, and it will be five to ten years, which is an optimistic estimate, before we see large scale chemical recovery.”

 

The Need to Expand

Victory identifies another hurdle, in that collection is simply not big enough. He says local authorities, which is where most responsibility for household waste collection lies, have been underfunded since the global economic downturn more than a decade ago, and investment
in infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing complexity of packaging as a result. This domestic issue is further exacerbated by China’s decision to stop taking waste plastics from the rest of the world.

 

Local authorities, which is where most responsibility for household waste collection lies, have been underfunded since the global economic downturn more than a decade ago, and investment in infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing complexity of packaging as a result.

 

“Since China stopped accepting waste, there’s more contamination in our domestic recycling,” explains Victory. “Wastage rates have increased, because China used to take the lower quality waste material, which they could use in industries such as textile, but is now being incorporated into domestic bales. The scale of demand and size of the undersupply is also meaning material is having to be produced at maximum capacity and stretched further, which also has an impact on contamination levels. In recycled polyethylene terephthalate, for example, we’ve seen wastage rates increase from 25% in 2009 to 30-35% currently.”

 

 

Hodges added that what the industry urgently needs is project teams to work out how to produce more sustainable product and how to better manage recycling collection and processing. “We’ve got 18 months to work this out,” he warned, “Because if we don’t do it, brand owners are going to say ‘look we’ve made a commitment to the consumers to have done this by 2025. You’re not moving. So, we’re going to have to do something else.’” Hodges feels the brand owners which have committed to the 2025 deadline need reassurance from the plastics industry. “We need to reach out to brand owners and say we have got the technology sorted, the business model sorted and the finance sorted, so trust us, we will now deliver on our commitment so you can deliver on what you need to do,” he said.

 

Planning in the Design Stage ICIS’ Senior Analyst of Plastics Recycling, Helen McGeough explained, “Plastic packaging is more complex than ever before, as modern packaging has moved beyond just functionality to a marketing tool. But we need to strip it back to a simpler level and encourage recycling concepts at the design stage.

 

“In the EU, the bar has been set high with the Single Use Plastic Directive, requiring higher collection rates for PET bottles in Europe at 63% and at 55% in the UK. The European country PET collection rates vary across member states reflecting the differences in systems, consumer participation and government ability to prioritize investment in waste management. This lack of standardization in everything from waste infrastructure to final R-PET product specification continues to present as many challenges as opportunities for one of the most developed recycled markets in the plastic industry.”

 

A Focus on Investment

Mark Victory stated, “The sector needs heavy investment to catch up across the entire chain. There’s no point in everyone wanting to recycle if the infrastructure isn’t there. We are relying on people to understand and embrace recycling systems, which is hard to predict. For this reason, there’s a strong education component to it. For most people, plastic is simply plastic, and they are unaware of the different types and what to do with each.”

 

Hodges concurred on the need for investment, emphatically suggesting the industry needs to provide funding to support real change, “The amounts the industry is committing to is next to nothing—25 million here, ten million there. Come on guys we’re talking about a hundred billion dollar industry here. You can’t start with pocket money!”

 

 

Hodges sees the biggest industry challenge, and perhaps opportunity, as shifting from massive mechanical recycling plants to smaller, local chemical recycling plants. “The new industry business model is small scale and local, whereas for the last 30 to 40 years, all we’ve talked about is massive and global—and this is a complete game changer,” he concluded.

 

By BCM