Chemical Recycling: Is it the Answer?

By Carrissa Pahl Published on Oct. 29, 2020

Due to its destructive nature, both consumers and companies are looking for new ways to recycle and reuse plastic. With the support of global media and social campaigns, corporations are growing more aware of the dangers of plastic. Additional figures also reveal a financial incentive to recycle. Studies from McKinsey & Co. show that recovering and recycling plastics can earn up to $4 billion per year for corporations.

What Exactly is Chemical Recycling?

The definition of chemical recycling includes any process by which a polymer is chemically reduced to its original monomer form so it can eventually be remade into like-new plastic and reused instead of potentially harming the environment. 

Polymers are used in clothing, packaging, carpet, and many other materials. During the process of chemical recycling or advanced recycling, those polymers are heated using thermochemical processes, hydrolysis, and solvolysis to recover the original monomer which can then be reused.

Chemical recycling has the potential to help us overcome the limits of traditional recycling. Plastic helps keep our food from spoiling, helps us transport goods, and is much cheaper and more durable than other forms of packaging material. 

The plastic industry is placing a big bet on chemical recycling.

Companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Unilever are making large investments into the industry hoping to adopt fully recycled materials for their bottles, cans, and other products. This process makes it possible to recycle products that we may traditionally not be able to. 

Chemical Recycling vs. Traditional Recycling

Chemical recycling differs from traditional recycling by physically changing the makeup of the recycled material. It also allows for recycling of more materials whereas more traditional mechanical recycling is only available for those materials which are recyclable. Chemical recycling is however more expensive than traditional recycling methods. Another concern for chemical recycling is the fact that it requires more energy and does not save as much CO2 as the more eco-friendly mechanical recycling techniques. 

Technology alone will not fix the recycling problem. Ellen Martin, VP of Impact and Strategic Initiatives at Closed Loop Partners explained, “The challenges of accessing quality feedstock, reducing contamination and getting the volumes they need are all the same challenges that we see in existing mechanical recycling.”

Funding for chemical recycling is currently much higher than for mechanical recycling. For example, a chemical recycling plant is being built in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. This plant will convert 360,000 tons of plastic waste into methanol annually. Air Liquide, France, AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals, The Netherlands, Enerkem, Canada, and the Port of Rotterdam initially invested a total of nine million euros. The plant is expected to cost a total of EUR 200 million. Shell has also been among the investors since March 2019.

Chemical recycling could be the start to a more efficient way to recycle and help reuse more plastic materials. There is; however, a long way to go before we find a 100% answer to the recycling problem. 

The Problem

As demand for recycled plastic increases at an alarming rate, it is rapidly outpacing supply. This is where chemical recycling comes in. In the US and Canada alone, only 6% of demand is met. Technology startups are starting to come up with new ideas on how to increase the supply of reusable plastic. 

In the United States alone, each year approximately 37 million tons of plastics are used and 16 million of that is usually single-use food or packaging containers. Americans, on average, use 100 pounds of plastic per person each year. However, only 12% of this is recycled and over 70% is sent to landfills. 

A few startups have made headway into the chemical recycling industry and are fighting for the top spot in consumer’s day-to-day life. 

Chemical Recycling Companies

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Deepak Dugar, President of Visolis, believes that “biology is building the world.” At Visolis, they use synthetic biology to manufacture high performance materials. By using a variety of sustainable materials, including waste biomass and CO2, they are able to transform those materials into bio-based chemicals for multiple different polymers from personal care to high performance. 

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One company has created a technology to speed up the process of chemical recycling. Waste plastics are often difficult to recycle due to contamination and cleanliness. So Agilyx has developed a technology that produces a premium refinery grade crude oil feedstock that is sold into commerce and provides flexibility to be used in multiple products.

At Agilyx they realize in order to make change, they will need a complete overhaul. That means new infrastructure, partnerships, and supply chain manufacturers and distributors. It will take a village to overturn the mess we’ve created. 

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Located in London, Plastic Energy is determined to “recycle plastics that no one else can.” Their technology which, like other chemical recycling technologies, can transform previously un-recyclable waste into valuable materials. Plastic Energy is able to convert end-of-life plastic waste into an optimal feedstock, called TACOIL which can then be made into cleaner, more environmentally friendly plastic product. With company goals that include reducing fossil fuels, keeping plastic waste out of landfills, reducing CO2 footprint, and boosting local economies, Plastic Energy is striving for big change. 

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For 10 years, perPETual has been fighting to find a solution and a way to reduce plastic waste from entering landfills and the ocean. It has now come up with a technology to convert plastic bottles into high quality, sustainable textiles and fabrics. According to perPETual, 600 billion plastic bottles are discarded every year. Determined to be part of the change, they decided to develop an environmentally sustainable and cost-effective process to convert consumer waste PET bottles into high quality sustainable (poly)ester. This ethically made ester can replace conventional esters which are made from PTA and MEG, both materials which contribute to a high carbon footprint. 

Although it will take many years to fix the recycling problem, these companies have a hopeful start to the solution.

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