For an idea of how the chemical industry intends to deal with one of the worst environmental plagues of our time, consider the humble pot of Muller yogurt.
A version of the German dairy brand’s distinctive two-cup container was produced in small demo quantities, with one key difference.
Half of the polystyrene, supplied by the petrochemical group Ineos, came from an innovative recycling technique heralded as a way to fight the plastic crisis.
It is part of a set of industrial processes under development that transform plastic waste into basic chemicals or oils, which can then provide the raw materials for new polymers.
Proponents say these technologies are capable of handling a wider spectrum of plastic waste and producing higher quality materials than conventional recovery methods.
Although in its infancy, chemical recycling has the potential, if widely deployed, to reduce the amount of discarded plastic that ends up being buried, incinerated, or littered the world’s oceans.
“It basically takes plastic waste and decompresses it into its raw material or components,” said Jim Becker, vice president of polymers and sustainability at Chevron Phillips Chemical.
The company recently became the first in the United States to commercially produce chemically recycled polyethylene, the most common plastic resin, that goes into carrier bags and shrink films. Its goal is now to produce 1 billion pounds (454,000 tonnes) of recycled material per year by 2030.
Other big chemicals makers such as Total, Sabic in Saudi Arabia and BASF are investing in similar initiatives, while investors are getting into start-ups in the nascent field.
Investments worth $ 4.3 billion for projects to convert waste plastics into new polymers or fuels have been announced in the United States alone since 2017, according to the American Chemistry Council.
These developments coincide with promises from major consumer goods brands to reduce the amount of “virgin” plastics, newly created from hydrocarbons, in their packaging. This will require at least tripled recycled content supplies by 2030, according to Closed Loop Partners, an investment firm with around $ 250 million in assets under management.
Jessica Stewart, of Systemiq, a sustainability consulting and investment firm, said that many business and government goals can only be achieved with traditional mechanical recycling alongside new chemical pathways. But, she added, many questions still hang over the latter.
“The system is immature and some stakeholders remain very skeptical due to technical, economic and environmental performance, which is simply not yet proven on a large scale”.
In conventional mechanical recycling, plastic is cleaned, shredded, melted, and reformed into granules. However, the qualities produced are generally of inferior quality, with potential contamination and impurities often making them unsuitable for contact with food.
A single piece of plastic can normally only go through the process a few times. But many items are not recyclable in this way, for economic or technical reasons.
Emerging or “advanced” chemical recycling processes claim to overcome these limitations.
“With chemical recycling, you can recreate the raw materials and create virgin plastics with the same characteristics as normal plastic. You can basically produce the whole range of polymers, ”said Daniele Ferrari, managing director of Versalis, a subsidiary of Italian oil and gas company Eni, which is building a demonstration facility.
However, to seriously reduce the roughly 350 million tonnes of plastic produced worldwide each year, it will need to be competitive in times of low crude prices as they are now. Cheaper oil and natural gas reduce one of the main input costs of plastics.
While many of the technologies and equipment underlying chemical recycling are not new, they are being re-used for integration into existing chemical production infrastructure.
Plastic Energy, a start-up that has raised 60 million euros in funding, claims to have refined the quality, purification and energy efficiency of pyrolysis, an established method of generating fuel from solid waste by applying heat in the absence of oxygen.
The UK-based company operates two commercial-scale factories in Spain and plans to build 10 facilities by 2025, including sites owned by Total in France and Sabic in the Netherlands.
Its reactors are fueled by a mixture of poor quality waste and are capable of taking mixed materials that mechanical recycling cannot, such as crispy metal-lined packets. Up to three-quarters of production is made up of a blend of hydrocarbon oils that can replace naphtha, an essential raw material for petrochemical plants that produce the building blocks of plastics.
“There is always a need for sorting, but it is less fine than mechanical recycling since we do not have to separate by polymers and colors,” said Cloé Ragot, responsible for policy and sustainability at Plastic Energy.
Ineos, which is teaming up with partners to build two pilot plants in the United States and Europe, says that producing polystyrene through chemical recycling cuts greenhouse gas emissions in half.
Yet despite all the hype, there are still many skeptics. While the petrochemical industry plans to invest $ 400 billion in new capacity over five years, according to climate think tank Carbon Tracker, campaigners see these new waste treatments as a distraction from the root of the problem: overproduction of packaging.
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Some investors have also shown disbelief, as shown when a company claiming breakthrough technology was attacked by a short seller in October.
Hindenburg Research, which also launched a campaign against starting hydrogen trucks last year Nikola, described Nasdaq-listed Loop Industries as “smoke and mirrors without viable technology.”
Loop said the report contained factual inaccuracies, with claims that were baseless or based on an older version of its technology. But its stock fell sharply after the report.
If chemical recycling is to play a role in redeeming plastic’s bad reputation, policymakers and the public will also need to be convinced.