The truth about plastic and chemical recycling

By Richard Daley, managing director of ReNew

Richard Daley
Richard Daley

THE Blue Planet II effect may well have become shorthand for growing public desire to tackle plastic pollution of the natural environment, but as one of the most versatile materials at our disposal continues to be demonised, there is a real risk of blinding ourselves to the opportunities that already exist which can help to solve the problem.

Of course, plastic pollution is in fact a symptom of a greater problem, which is that despite the immeasurable difference plastic has made to human health and lifestyle – from food preservation through to medical advances – it is regarded as a material of little value, and therefore efforts are not focused on its complete collection and re-use.

This perceived lack of value and an infrastructure ill-equipped to support the recovery and recycling of all plastic types fundamentally undermines efforts to reduce the amount of plastic waste that is sent to landfill and incineration, and that which leaks into the environment. The result is that in total, the lost resource of combined plastic waste globally is estimated at more than $80 billion per year.

The issue is compounded by a lack of awareness of alternatives to traditional mechanical recycling processes. The reality is there are many types of plastic that are classed as ‘unrecyclable’ via mechanical recycling, such as multi-layer, composite plastics.

Mechanical recycling also inhibits continual recycling of a material, with a loss in quality of recycled plastic after a short number of re-uses – the reason the process is often referred to as ‘down-cycling’.

Despite the fact chemical recycling received scant attention in the Waste Strategy, there are a number of approaches that offer a solution to recycle these ‘unrecyclable’ materials.

ReNew ELP’s proven Cat-HTR chemical recycling technology is able to convert multi-layer, flexible plastics that are currently not mechanically recycled, into valuable chemicals and oils; the original building blocks from which plastic is made. This means there is no limit to the number of times plastic can be recycled, and thus entering plastic into a circular economy.

Cat-HTR is not sensitive to contamination from paper or other organics, and by converting waste plastic back into chemicals and oils for use in the production of new plastics, ReNew ELP’s technology in turn reduces dependency on fossil fuels as a resource, whilst helping to keep plastic waste out of the environment.

Cat-HTR is classed as hydrothermal liquification – meaning it uses heat and water to break the molecular bonds within plastic to convert waste plastic currently considered unrecyclable via mechanical recycling (such as mixed composite polymer plastic waste) into high grade chemicals and oils.

ReNew ELP’s target feedstock is mixed waste plastics which are considered too contaminated or mixed for traditional recycling methods. As these plastics continue to be disposed of via landfill or incineration (over 95% of single-use flexible film used in the UK is incinerated), the opportunity for polymer recycling is lost.

Cat-HTR enables the polymer to be continually recycled, retaining the value of the material.
Far from being a single solution however, Cat-HTR technology is designed as a complementary process to run alongside mechanical recycling, converting plastics that mechanical recycling cannot. The unfortunate reality, however, is that if government fails to embrace these new technologies, plastic manufacture will continue to overtake recycling capacity. And with landfills reaching capacity, the level of plastic waste will soon become unmanageable.

The truth is the way in which plastic waste is managed must change. The sooner this change is brought about, the sooner we will realise a common vision for a low-carbon, plastic-neutral and sustainable future.