As a result of the massive quantity of waste plastic trash that has been collecting in landfills, seas, and other natural habitats across the globe, the present usage of plastics is not sustainable.
Mechanical recycling, also known as back-to-plastics recycling when it comes to plastics, has been in use since the 1970s and is becoming more popular. The availability of recovered plastics, on the other hand, varies from one region to another.
Recently, there has been a significant increase in interest in chemical recycling technology as a possible solution to the plastics problem, which is not surprising. Meanwhile, opponents point to disadvantages such as environmental health concerns, inefficiency in terms of the quantity of waste plastic that is converted into new plastic, and high prices as reasons to oppose the practice of recycling.
TechNewsWorld spoke with plastics industry experts about the problems at hand, in order to determine whether chemical recycling technology has the ability to solve the plastic pollution problem.
Strategies for Long-Term Sustainability
Environmentalists and proponents of strong sustainability are unanimous in their belief that the buildup of plastic trash must be reduced or eliminated entirely. This, however, is not a straightforward undertaking.
While the majority of plastic recycling in the United States is accomplished through mechanical means, solid industrial waste is disposed of in landfills, according to Jeff Brown, material science engineer and quality and compliance officer at plastics manufacturing company Premier Plastics, who spoke with TechNewsWorld about the subject.
Brown’s home city of Salt Lake City, for example, has regional goals in place to guide sustainable development, according to the United States’ sustainability plan, which mandates much of the country’s recycling strategy and procedures. At the local level, most municipalities, including Brown’s hometown, have established regional goals to guide sustainable development, Brown explained.
Plastic trash is dealt with in a variety of methods in the United States. Prevention (decreased trash generation) and reuse (recycling) are favored over an alternative, less environmentally friendly ways of garbage disposal, such as landfilling.
Landfilling is only permitted for the disposal of wastes that cannot be handled in any other manner, such as hazardous waste and severely polluted garbage. As a result of this limitation, the vast majority of plastic trash is transported to mechanical recycling facilities for processing.
“Mechanical recycling is beneficial since it imposes a lower environmental load on the environment than the usage of new plastics. Recycling plastics saves resources such as materials, water, and energy, among other things “According to Chris DeArmitt, Ph.D., a plastics materials specialist and the president of Phantom Plastics, the company is a good fit.
This demonstrates how legislative action is critical in affecting the circularity of materials and in facilitating the shift to more environmentally friendly alternatives.
As the need for recycled plastics grows at an alarming rate, a growing number of promises from retailers, brands, and other stakeholders are being made to close the plastics loop.
Danone, Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever are just a few of the consumer goods firms that have set lofty targets for themselves to guarantee that all plastic packaging is biodegradable, recyclable, and reusable.
“Walmart makes a significant effort to promote sustainability, but it does not focus that effort toward chemical recycling, thus it is an indirect connection. However, many other businesses are creating their own sustainability strategies, which may involve the use of environmentally friendly packaging “Brown said himself.
Mechanical recycling vs chemical recycling
In order to extract the most value from plastic trash and convert it into other valuable uses, mechanical recycling has shown to be the most effective method. The mechanical method, on the other hand, has its limits. Currently, only 13 percent of plastic packaging in the United States gets recycled, another 17 percent is burned, and the remaining 70 percent is landfilled.
“Normal mechanical recycling is the most environmentally friendly, has the most established results, and works on 90 percent of all plastics. Chemical recycling may make sense at some time in the future for the remaining 10% of the population “in the opinion of DeArmitt
Chemical recycling offers long-term solutions to the current challenges of mechanical recycling processes, as it allows for the recycling of a greater variety of plastic wastes than is possible with conventional mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling is a viable option for overcoming the current challenges of mechanical recycling processes. Chemical recycling allows for the liquefaction of mixed, colored, and multilayer-material plastic wastes in a thermochemical liquefaction process, which converts them into a substance that is comparable to crude oil.
“That’s where chemical recycling comes in; they’re really utilizing a chemical process to separate the various components of the product. This is an expensive recycling technique — and it is effective — but it is extremely industrial and costly, which is why most businesses do not use it, according to the EPA “Brown went on to say.
The problem of cost is linked to the availability and demand of recycled chemical plastics in the marketplace. As a result, there is still limited demand for recovered chemical plastics in the market.
“If I were a packaging maker, I would choose for less costly virgin plastic over more expensive chemically recovered plastic since it is less expensive. Because that is how business is conducted. Businesses are always striving to increase revenues while reducing costs. You don’t want to spend more money on more costly [items] until the customer specifically requests it “He reasoned his way through the situation.
Moreover, Brown said that chemical recycling is not a high priority in the region’s government. “I’m not aware of the number of chemical recycling facilities that exist in the United States. However, I don’t believe there are many of them. As a result, it is a) unavailable and b) very costly.”
The chemical process as a method of plastic recycling has not been taken into consideration in the municipal waste-handling plan.
Taking Advantage of All Possibilities
Chemical recycling technology, by virtue of its capacity to offer a variety of choices that are not currently accessible via mechanical material recycling routes, provides the possibility for new approaches to dealing with post-consumer waste.
However, the technique is still in its early stages of development, with no large-scale industrial applications for chemical recycling now available. There are just test projects available. As a result, developers have major difficulties in demonstrating their potential, particularly in terms of how the technology may fundamentally alter the lifespan of plastics and substantially increase the number of recovered plastics.
While still in the early phases, Brown said that certain companies such as BASF are doing research and development, as well as actually deploying chemical recycling technologies at the small-scale level in their operations.
It will take a great deal of effort to scale up the technology in order for it to become more feasible over the next decade.
“As far as the timeline goes, maybe 10 years from now this will be a little farther along, there will be a little more consumer acceptability, and research will be a little further ahead,” Brown said.
Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) are a kind of partnership between the government and the private sector.
The plastics sector is getting ready to adopt the technology, and regulations are being put in place to facilitate this transition. Ohio and Illinois have become the most recent states to adopt legislation that makes it simpler to establish chemical recycling facilities by classifying them as recycling operations rather than waste processing plants instead of waste processing plants.
Collaboration and innovation in the field of chemical recycling are proven to be the crucial answers in this situation. Companies with competence in chemical recycling have little trouble locating potential customers. Industrial behemoths such as SABIC, BASF, Dow, and Neste have been reaching out to specialist downstream partners in an effort to obtain access to chemical recycling technologies and outputs that they can utilize in their European manufacturing plants.
In order to promote these initiatives, Brown believes that chemical firms should collaborate with government agencies and industry partners.
“They may push governments to provide incentives, require recycling program levels, and provide funding for research and development. I believe that collaborating at the government and industry levels is one of the most important things that a business can do to pave the road for chemical recycling to become more widespread “He made a suggestion.