Mechanical recycling has benefits over chemical recycling, but both will be required for a successful circular plastics economy, according to the CEO of Austria’s polyolefins and fertilizers major Borealis.
Alfred Stern said lower processing temperature, less complexity and more developed infrastructure make mechanical recycling the first choice for Borealis, though limits on its use mean that chemical recycling will be required to further boost recycling rates.
Speaking on the sidelines of the K-Fair in Germany, Stern said that Borealis has chosen to focus initially on mechanical recycling because the technology is already available and has a lot of development potential to further increase quality and yields.
“Three levels of effort are required on recycling: chemical recycling, mechanical recycling and renewable feedstocks for the base polymer so we are taking a suite of approaches to the opportunity,” he said.
“We really need to push mechanical recycling as far we can because it is the lower energy route to recycling of plastics. At Borealis, we are convinced a mixture of technologies will ultimately be used. Mechanical recycling requires less energy to turn plastic waste back into plastic products.”
However, he added that there will limits to this, and for the remainder chemical recycling could be used to obtain higher recycling rates.
There is a sharp regional variation in the distribution and quality of collection and sorting infrastructure and improving this everywhere will be a key factor for the chemical industry to scale up production of recycled polymers.
Stern said Europe is well equipped with infrastructure for waste collection and management, but is missing sorting capacity to give the right quality of feedstock.
Recycling production capacity is also insufficient.
“All of these will need to be scaled up in synchronisation to create a successful circular plastics economy. Recycling requires different and a lot more cooperation with, for example, the waste management people,” said Stern.
The chemicals industry in Europe should cooperate with the waste collection and sorting sector rather than developing its own infrastructure, because it is already a well-established industry, he added.
In other regions such as southeast Asia this infrastructure is absent or poorly developed, giving chemical companies the chance to intervene.
Borealis has set up a project in Indonesia called Project Stop that has introduced waste management to 30,000 households in one city, Banyuwangi in East Java.
The project aims ultimately to be self-financing and to be used as a model in other cities. All waste is collected and sorted with plastic which is reprocessed, representing 12% of the total.
Other companies or associations such Borouge, Nova Chemicals, Nestle, Veolia and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) have partnered on the programme.
The scale of waste marine plastic is huge, so the project plans to move to new cities working with the Indonesian government to see how it can be leveraged and grown.
“It’s important to do something on the ground to show people what is possible,” said Stern.
SMALL SCALE, LESS ENERGY
Compared with chemical recycling, mechanical recycling can be done on a smaller scale with simpler technology which involves re-melting polymers at below 200 degrees Celsius.
“It’s a low energy process which is preferable to chemical recycling where you have to break down the polymer chains into smaller molecules again,” he said.
Chemical recycling technologies such as gasification or pyrolysis will potentially require more chemical process technology and bigger scale, added Stern, pictured.
“The industry will be different and a more heterogeneous picture. Chemical recycling is less available today but they will be generally bigger plants – we will learn a lot over the next couple of years and the industry must be willing to experiment.”
Earlier in October, Borealis – which bought Ecoplast in August 2018 - said it has completed work on a 60% expansion to Ecoplast’s polymer recycling facility in Austria.
The plant can now process 58,000 tonnes/year of low density polyethylene (LDPE) waste and came onstream on 3 October.
“The aim is to recycle flexible LDPE [low density polyethylene] packaging back into LDPE for flexible packaging. It’s pre-sorted post-consumer recycled feedstock with mechanical recycling to LDPE for film applications,” said Stern.
Borealis also acquired the mtm group in 2016, comprising mtm plastics and mtm compact.
Mtm plastics, based in Niedergebra, Germany, can produce 30,000 tonnes/year of recycled polyethylene (R-PE) and recycled polypropylene (R-PP).
Sister company mtm compact, based in Furstenwalde, Germany, processes around 25,000 tonnes/year of waste plastic to produce 24,000 tonnes/year of plastics pellets.
At the K Trade Fair in Dusseldorf, Germany, Borealis announced it aims to produce renewable PP through a partnership with Neste, which will supply renewable propane, by the end of 2019.
Borealis will process this through propane dehydrogenation (PDH) to produce feedstocks for its facilities at Kallo and Beringen, Belgium.
Stern said Borealis would be the only company able to offer segregated R-PP and mass balance R-PP, where recycled feedstock is mixed with virgin material.
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