Are we wasting our waste plastic?

As the focus of both consumers and producers shifts ever more towards sustainability and creating a circular production economy, a key opportunity exists in the chemicals industry to address this a huge demand for new solutions.

It is estimated that if demand for plastic follows its current trajectory, global plastic-waste volumes would grow from 260 million tons per year in 2016 to 460 million tons per year by 2030. This near doubling of waste in under 15 years is not something that should be tolerated by either governments or the general public.

In practical terms, these frustrations are being translated into an increased regulatory burden for companies in a hope that this will cut back on waste. Thinking more shrewdly, however, this could represent an important and profitable new business opportunity.

Research by McKinsey in 2016 showed that just 12 percent of plastics waste was being reused or recycled, with the great majority of used plastics going to incineration, landfills, or dumps, further polluting the environment. Consequently, these materials are lost as a resource, despite the potential for reuse and recycling.

The difficulty in plastic recycling to date has been that traditional mechanical recycling processes have only really proven profitable in a very slim sector of the market. This is where the chemical industry plays a significant role, notably in designing new processes to recycle a wider range of plastics and adapting existing processes to become efficient and profitable.

There are three main solutions offered to tackle the issue:

Mechanical recycling deals mainly with the plastics used in drinks bottles and their respective lids and caps. The recycling of these kinds of plastics often proves cheaper than their production, as this often involves very costly processes.

Monomer recycling encompasses some of the plastics found in drinking bottles as well as those found in nylon clothing. The process works by reversing the process by which the material was initially made to recreate the raw material. Although not yet available at scale, the process has the potential to become one of the most profit-friendly recycling methods due to the quality of the product yielded.

Pyrolysis is perhaps the most exciting method of the bunch. It sees plastic heated to the point of decomposition whereby it turns back into oil, ready for use again. This means that all our plastic ‘waste’ could, in fact, be used as one of the most important commodities on Earth in the 21st century, fuel. London-based Pryolysis company, Cynar – one of the most successful in the world – claims that one tonne of plastic could be converted to 700L of diesel, ready for consumption.

While we are barraged with images of hermit crabs using tin cans as shells and turtles snapping up floating plastic bags in the place of jellyfish, the plastic waste situation can feel really rather hopeless. It is refreshing to see the cogs of the capitalist machine churning out profit-friendly solutions to the issue that not only satisfy the needs of the population at large, but also those of the planet.

Mother Nature … wastes practically nothing and reuses almost everything. Sustainability applies as much to our own talents, approaches and outlook as it does to recycling a yoghurt carton. Therefore where there is the skill, talent, and willingness to do something with an invested resource that makes a difference, then we should do it – Michael Murray, Cynar Founder and CEO

By Sandy Ritchie on 31/01/2020