How chemical recycling could solve our plastics problem

Written by: Carlos Monreal | Published:

Momentum is growing for governments and industry to adopt sustainable practices and develop circular economies.

And the technologies being introduced to accomplish effective recycling are outpacing regulation and waste management infrastructures.

In essence, waste management systems are complex and disparate and regulation is outdated and not fit for purpose in a new age of environmental sensitivity and responsible economic growth.

One method of tackling plastic not currently recycled is chemical recycling. It is a relatively new concept which is now being adopted by leading industries worldwide, but as with all new technologies, myths have grown up around it.

For example, some have confused chemical recycling with incineration or took it as a direct competitor to mechanical recycling. Our concept of chemical recycling is a technology targeted towards ‘end-of-life plastic’ which cannot be mechanically recycled.

This is a result of both the current technical limitations of mechanical recycling, but also the limit on the amount of time plastics can be mechanically recycled before it is degraded.

To clarify, the main sources of plastic that we convert are post-consumer plastic waste from municipalities. These plastics are comingled with a large majority of low-density polythene – films, flexible packaging – and the rest a mix of polypropylene and polystyrene.

These are normally contaminated after mixing with other wastes, food, or in their direct composition layers of other materials, ink and so on.

Our chemical recycling technology melts the plastics in an oxygen-free environment. It upgrades the plastic through the conversion into the original monomers in each process of recycling, making it eternally safe and reusable as a virgin-quality food grade product.

This effectively means that chemical recycling contributes to the improvement of recycling, sustainable waste management, and the decarbonisation of the economy.

By endlessly recycling previously unrecyclable plastic waste, a circular economy is created and by closing the loop it can dramatically improve the environment.

So, what can be done to hasten the roll out of chemical recycling?

One of the problems is access to the waste plastic. Local government authorities often have long term agreements with Energy from Waste companies or for export of waste which might be difficult to unravel.

The challenge is to create efficient systems to enable the diversion of plastic waste away from landfills, or incineration, to secure the required feedstock to be recycled. As such, it also makes sense to stop exporting waste to countries that do not have the infrastructure to address it and build the necessary infrastructure locally.

Another complication revolves around the development of this new recycling market. Now that it is accepted that chemical recycling (Plastic2Plastic) is part of recycling under the waste hierarchy, we will require additional clarification at the EU level and harmonization across countries on chemical recycling.

This includes the inclusion of chemical recycling in the calculation of the recycling targets, but also in the development and acceptance of a mass-balance approach to enable the sale of the certified recycled plastics, and the clarification of the procedures related to the end-of-waste status.

As chemical recycling requires large investments, clear and consistent regulations are needed which acknowledge the benefits of this new solution to enable the conversion of end-of-life into something of value instead of being destroyed through incineration or lost in landfill, and to allow further expansion.

This new industry will need to be incentivised to develop infrastructure swiftly if countries and companies are serious about reaching new EU targets for plastic recycling or commitments.

It’s a promising but still complex picture with the opportunity to convert dirty plastic back into virgin-quality plastic.

The environmental and economic benefits are evident and there is a clear recognition that chemical recycling is part of the solution to reduce plastic pollution and to contribute to create a circular economy of plastics.

Carlos Monreal is founder and CEO of chemical recyclers Plastics Energy

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