The deployment of innovative chemical recycling technologies – which can reprocess waste plastics into high-value, sustainable feedstocks for the production of new plastics, chemicals and oils – holds the key to tackling the plastic waste problem. But Government policies need to catch up with these innovations.
Investing in chemical recycling solutions will enable the waste management sector to recycle a far higher proportion of the plastic that is currently deemed ‘unrecyclable’. The technologies can also produce materials with a high recycled content, enabling the packaging and manufacturing sectors to improve their resource efficiency and sustainable credentials.
Chemical recycling is an umbrella term for chemical processes that break up the polymers in the waste material, enabling new products and materials to be manufactured.
At ReNewELP, we have developed a technology that recycles end-of-life plastic. The process chemically recycles waste plastics into stable synthetic oils and petrochemicals using a patented catalytic hydrothermal reactor. The liquid products can replace fossil-derived feedstock and can be used to create new virgin plastic, thus bringing plastic into the circular economy (CE).
ReNewELP can chemically recycle end-of-life plastics into oils and chemicals. The target feedstock is currently disposed of via landfill or incineration. The technology uses a patented catalytic hydrothermal reactor (Cat-HTR) developed by Australian hydrothermal upgrading business Licella during the past 10 years.
Cat-HTR uses water at high pressure and high temperatures to convert waste plastic into synthetic crude oil, valuable chemicals and waxes. The patented technology is unique when compared with other plastic conversion processes because it uses water as the ‘agent of change’. This means there is no need to dry feedstocks prior to the process.
During the reaction, plastic waste is heated and mixed with water to a high temperature and pressure, then heated further to a supercritical state. Water in this state causes polymers to break down into smaller molecules that, when cooled to atmospheric temperature and pressure, take the form of liquid oils and waxes.
The products range from kerosene and naphtha, grades of middle distillate diesel, paraffins, waxes and bitumen-like wax, all of which have a commercial use. The process generates more stable products than alternative thermal conversion techniques, and reduces the generation of GHG and unwanted by-products such as ash, toxins and dioxins.
An independent lifecycle analysis carried out by the National Non-Food Crop Council has shown that Cat-HTR can achieve a GHG reduction in excess of 70% compared with a baseline of fossil fuel production. One of the key selling points of the process is that ReNewELP can accept a wide range of waste plastics, from rigid pots, tubs and trays and PET containers through to PE films.
The company is building the first commercial-scale Cat-HTR plant in Teesside. The plant will initially process 20,000 tonnes a year and work is expected to start in early 2019. ReNewELP is currently looking at other potential sites around the UK, and is offering to license the technology to waste producers and waste processors.
The recent decision by Chinese authorities to close export markets for low-grade waste plastic, coupled with rising landfill taxes in the UK and public pressure to deal with plastic pollution, are encouraging the plastic and packaging industry to increase its use of recycled plastic. In addition, the chancellor recently pledged to tax plastic packaging made with less than 30% recycled content and to review the UK’s producer responsibility system, which will further increase demand for plastics with a high recycled constituent.
With plastic production forecast to increase, the time is ripe for new recycling technologies to come to the fore. Embracing chemical recycling will enable the UK to achieve several complementary goals:
- Increase plastic recycling rates and cut plastic waste sent to landfill or incineration
- Create recycled content products that will contribute to the establishment of a CE for plastics
- Reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by switching from fossil fuel feedstocks to new plastics and oils, along with reducing the volume of plastic burned in incinerators.
There is also tremendous demand for the output materials from chemical recycling plants. ReNewELP and Finnish refinery giant Neste, the world’s largest producer of renewable oils refined from waste and residues, recently signed a memorandum of understanding that will see them work together to capitalise on the value in waste plastic as a raw material feedstock.
Despite this enthusiasm, the chemical re-cycling sector requires Government support to enable the economic and environmental benefits of these technologies to be fully realised. For example, oils from chemical recycling processes have the potential to contribute to the decarbonisation of transport fuels because they can be further refined into diesel.
“The UK is home to many innovative chemical recycling companies and has a fantastic opportunity to become a world leader in plastic recycling.”
The Government’s renewable transport fuel obligation provides incentives for fuels derived from sustainable and renewable feedstocks. But recycled carbon fuels derived from chemical recycling of solid residual waste are not currently covered by the scheme. An additional category for advanced development fuels was established in 2018, but this category does not recognise hydrocarbons that have been derived from residual plastic waste.
Recycled carbon fuels are defined in the recently recast Renewable Energy Directive. The directive recommends a lifecycle GHG saving in excess of 70% as the benchmark for inclusion of these products within recycled fuel incentive schemes. However, a methodology to calculate lifecycle GHG emissions does not have to be in place at EU member state level until December 2021.
There is an urgent need for the Government to step in and clarify the position with regard to these technologies and products. The lack of clarity causes major uncertainty for investors, delaying or putting projects at risk due to a lack of financing, which is resulting in a delay in new waste processing capacity.
It is essential the UK moves quickly to recognise chemical recycling as a low-carbon recycling technology and develops a clear policy framework that will support the production of recycled carbon feedstocks. The resources and waste strategy included a commitment to remove all unnecessary plastic waste during the next 25 years. Encouragingly, the document provided a definition of chemical recycling, but unfortunately made no recommendations as to how such technologies should be applied to boost recycling rates and unlock the value in plastic waste.
The UK is home to many innovative chemical recycling companies and has a fantastic opportunity to become a world leader in plastic recycling, but action must be taken now to capitalise on this opportunity.
ReNewELP is lobbying the Government for support. As a founding member of Chemical Recycling Europe, a non-profit group comprising technology developers, the company is working with colleagues across Europe to demonstrate how the uptake of the technologies is critical if targets that are specified in the European plastics strategy are to be met. The association is due to launch in June 2019, and will work to promote chemical recycling and the CE across Europe.
ReNewELP is also a member of the Polyolefin Circular Economy Platform, which focuses on clarifying a final regulatory definition of chemical recycling to help inform policy-makers. This is crucial because the current waste framework definition of recycling excludes the production of material for use as a fuel. This is a clear own-goal given the role that chemical recycling technologies could play in decarbonising transport fuels.
In the coming years, there is huge potential for chemical recycling to become the preferred treatment method for plastic waste because it recovers the enormous value in plastic that is currently lost through landfill or incineration. Widespread adoption of chemical recycling over alternative disposal methods such as incineration is the only way to establish a CE for plastics. But it is also contingent on the chemical recycling sector to work together to clearly explain the many benefits of the technology.
By speaking as a sector rather than competing individual firms, chemical recycling can be promoted as the logical choice for plastic waste treatment in the UK and globally. The longer we fail to deal with the growing problem of plastic waste, the greater the challenge becomes for all of us and for future generations.
Richard Daley is managing director of ReNewELP