Technological innovations in plastics recycling could be the remedy the world is looking for in clearing up the land and oceans from the blight of plastics waste.
Chemical recycling is the process of breaking down used plastic to its constituent components for use as fuel or as feedstock to create new plastic. It is related to gasification, but with a more valuable end product.
With a growing number of companies looking to do just that on a commercial scale, it is getting to be a competitive space. November’s MRW featured the Demeto partnership, a group of 13 businesses, academic and trade bodies, which is looking to develop an industrial-grade pilot plant that uses microwaves to break the polymer chains.
MRW has also been keeping a close eye on Recycling Technologies, which has now set up factory production of its RT7000 machine – which can be installed at small sites to turn any plastic waste back into feedstock. The machines will go into production early in 2019.
In November the company held a grand opening of its new head office and assembly facility in Swindon.
Two new companies to the UK – PowerHouse Energy and Plastics Energy – are also entering the market, with their takes on products and business models.
The promise of making money through recycling plastic, whether film, polystyrene, vinyl or PET, without the need for expensive sorting processes and volatile end-markets, is hard to ignore. But there are significant hurdles, as with any new business model, and regulators and markets will need to play catch-up if it is to make a dent in the yearly tonnage of plastics waste.
Mark Hilton, head of sustainable business at Eunomia, said the technology was a potential solution for the harder to recycle materials, but that the focus should remain on prevention and maximising traditional mechanical methods first.
”It is high time we reviewed where this type of processing fits in the plastics waste hierarchy.”
“There are certainly interesting developments in the field of chemical recycling, and it is high time we reviewed where this type of processing fits in the plastics waste hierarchy,” he said.
“In the past, feedstock/chemical recycling has been difficult to justify economically and was highly energy-intensive. During the past decade, the technology has developed and we have progressed with recycling the ‘easier’ types of material.
“As a result, there is an increasing need to find ways to recycle more difficult plastics, such as laminated multi-polymer material.
“Chemical recycling offers a potential solution for some of these harder to recycle materials. That said, given the aim is to achieve the best overall environmental outcome, the focus should still be to prevent, simplify design where possible and maximise mechanical recycling first.”
Plastic Energy already has two chemical recycling industrial-scale plants operating in Seville and Almeria in Spain pumping out 850 litres of oil for every tonne of waste plastics, putting it ahead of many of its rivals. It is eyeing up the UK and has set up a technology headquarters in London.
As with other chemical recyclers, Plastic Energy makes a big play about being able to deal with tricky end-of-life plastic such as bags, drinking straws, tubs, food trays, yoghurt pots and sachets. Heating the plastics in an oxygen-free environment breaks them down into synthetic oils.
Depending on feedstock, the result, which the company calls Tacoil (from thermal anaerobic technology), can be turned into fuel or feedstock.
The company boasts that its modular plants “can be built anywhere”. Its founder and chief executive is Carlos Monreal. A self-confessed “serial entrepreneur”, after more than 20 years in the GPS industry he moved to alternative energy.
“I am an engineer by trade and dedicated to developing new technologies,” he said. “Right now there are many companies claiming to have chemical recycling processes operating, but none of them have industrial plants operating within European standards of health and safety and quality of output.”
Monreal pointed to a market report estimating the global chemical recycling industry will be worth $50bn-$60bn by 2030. He also sees the UK as a large market in which to expand, and plans to process 200,000 tonnes of plastics a year here and across the EU by 2020.
Monreal claims to have the only industrial-scale plants of their type up and running, and said the company deals with much larger volumes of waste plastics than other technologies.
A key question with the technology, as sounded by Hilton, is where it fits – or does not fit – within the waste hierarchy.
“What are our objectives – are we trying to tackle waste plastics or are we trying to reduce our CO2 footprint?” asks Monreal. “As it is, chemical recycling is not included in the technologies or solutions to count towards recycling.”
He sees the problem as being a lack of information with the regulators: “People have been talking about this for many, many years. Chemical recycling, from all the different methods, has a lower CO2 footprint than many other existing technologies.”
He added that producing fuel in this way also has a lower CO2 footprint than transporting gasoline.
“Emissions are much better than with incineration. If we want to truly tackle the waste plastic situation, anything that is better than landfilling or incineration should be a priority.
“You have to respect that it is better to do mechanical recycling, but we are focusing on feedstocks that cannot be mechanically recycled.”
The company has signed up to WRAP’s Plastics Pact, which Monreal said has recognised chemical recycling as “one of the potential solutions”.
“It is starting to get the virgin polymer producers interested in the sector, particularly for some of those low-value films heavily contaminated with food where mechanically recycling is not really economically viable,” he said. “It creates an opportunity for the big virgin polymer manufacturers such as Sabic and BASF to use feedstocks that come from chemical recycling and put them back into the supply chain.
“The UK has got a reasonable-sized chemicals industry that relies on feedstocks from the North Sea and imported gas.
“If you look at some of the long-term targets, the Plastics Pact and the challenges around flexibles, this could be a real opportunity and certainly something the Pact will be exploring very closely.”
Plastics to Hydrogen
PowerHouse Energy has developed a technology process termed DMG [which uses a thermal conversion chamber to produce syngas] that converts virtually any biomass or carbonaceous waste stream into clean energy and hydrogen.
Of the 90% of waste that is not recycled, the process focuses on the most challenging: unrecyclable and contaminated plastic waste and end-of-use tyres. In the UK alone, 38 million plastic bottles are used every day and 70 million end-of-life tyres amass each year, of which only 15% are recycled.
The efficiency of the DMG process makes it commercially viable. For example, the road fuel-quality hydrogen it produces can be sold at a price on a par with petrol and diesel. It is also attractive from an environmental perspective having a low carbon footprint and being much more attractive than incineration or landfill which are the current alternatives. And it manages contaminants well by depositing any toxins as an output that can be safely disposed of or itself reused.
Having just been granted a Feasibility Certificate from global leading technical assurance firm DNV-GL, PowerHouse Energy is well on track to having the first commercial plant being built utilising the DMG process. So, unlike many potential energy-from-waste (EfW) technologies which are still some years away from becoming a reality, PowerHouse has a technology process that could be up and running commercially within a year that addresses the plastic waste challenge head-on.
To provide an idea of the impact the DMG process could have, consider that, if just 10% of the plastic waste produced annually in the UK was to be subject to the technology, it would power 90,000 homes, supply hundreds of industrial estates with heat and fuel the equivalent of 122 million clean HGV miles – and in the process displace 10 million gallons of diesel fuel.
Licensing is at the heart of PowerHouse Energy’s strategy, allowing the DMG process to be applied globally both quickly and efficiently. While it will not be a panacea to solving the world’s plastic waste problem, it is positioned to play an important role.
PowerHouse Energy views plastic waste as a resource that can be used very efficiently to produce clean energy, thus killing two big birds with one stone – reducing the tsunami of plastic waste and meeting the growing need for affordable clean energy.
The company is powering ahead with upgraded demonstration unit and six potential sites have been identified.
Keith Allaun is chief executive at PowerHouse Energy Group