Projects

Towards improved circularity of polyolefin-based packaging

ISPT Team - Ronald Korstanje

This project aims to analyse the technological hurdles for and provide background on the technical readiness of innovative technologies for mechanical and chemical recycling of plastics.

Incentive

Plastics are present in many aspects of our daily lives, finding use in diverse products including computers, sports equipment, automotive parts, medical equipment, toys, and food packaging. The rapid adoption of plastics over the years stems from overall benefits versus other materials, in particular their reliability, ease of manufacturing, light weight and affordability.

Nonetheless one cannot disregard the negative impacts plastic litter has on our environment. Though this is also part of a larger issue related to global waste management infrastructure this concern needs to be answered not only by efficient management at the end of their service life, but also by a change in perception: plastics are far too valuable to be treated as waste.

Once they have served their purpose, used plastic should be part of a circular value chain, upcycling them or as feedstock in the chemical industry.

Of the plastics currently produced in the Netherlands and used for packaging, only 35% are mechanically recycled, whereas 65% are incinerated.

Of the plastics currently produced in the Netherlands and used for packaging, only 35% are mechanically recycled, whereas 65% are incinerated with an associated CO2-emission of 18 million tons (based on “levenscyclus van plastics in Nederland, 2018” of Plastics Europe).

The percentage of mechanically recycled plastic packaging can be increased by, amongst others, improved sorting technologies. Chemical recycling technologies such as gasification and pyrolysis can further break down plastic waste to the molecular level and can accommodate mixed and contaminated plastic waste. Both chemical recycling and mechanical recycling can have GHG emission advantages over incineration.

In order to achieve optimum utilization of waste plastic, both mechanical and chemical recycling needs to be applied. However, further technological development is required to make this economically feasible more broadly. Thus plastic waste can be the feedstock for circularity, and the quality of the feedstock as well as of recycled products – crucial for market acceptance and economical as well as ecological success – can be guaranteed.

Plastic waste can be the feedstock for circularity

Objective

There are plenty of technologies proposed and implemented to move forward the mechanical and chemical recycling of plastics. However, large scale implementation is still challenging.

In this project, we analyse the technological hurdles for and provide background on the technical readiness of these technologies. Our focus is on emerging plastic sorting technologies and the chemical recycling of mixed (mainly polyolefin containing) plastic waste by pyrolysis and gasification in the context of a circular value chain. Thus we create better understanding of those technologies and generate insights that help close the complex loop for polyolefin-based plastic recycling.

Fast and efficient sorting has been identified as a critical success factor to increase the recycle ratio of plastics.

Activities

Sorting tests: waste stream composition and most suitable recycling technologies.

We collect post-consumer plastic waste in five different regions in Europe. These sorted streams are analyzed in detail on chemical and physical aspects such as waste stream composition (type of polymers, additives, contaminants, among others) as well as recycling technologies most suitable for these waste streams.

Mechanical recycling is often more cost-efficient and should initially be able to generate the most value. However, successive mechanical recycling degrades the material and eventually all materials become potential feed for chemical recycling. Therefore it is important to assess what fractions of the aforementioned streams are to be used for chemical recycling (with a focus on pyrolysis and gasification). Waste collection system differences will be outside the scope of this study.

Evaluation of new analyzing techniques

Fast and efficient sorting has been identified as a critical success factor to increase the recycle ratio of plastics. This is why we evaluate new analyzing techniques such as Raman spectroscopy, hyperspectral imaging and data analysis.

Design for recycling in relation to emerging sorting techniques
We develop scenarios to determine what the influence will be of improvements made to the plastics (through design for recycling) and emerging sorting techniques, to be used by 2025 and beyond.

Analysis of chemical recycling: focus on quality

Using our sorted and analyzed streams, we analyze chemical recycling (in particular pyrolysis and gasification) in more detail and as a part of a circular value chain. By using these technologies, plastic waste is reduced to building blocks, which can then be re-used to make plastics. We look into the relation between the quality of the plastic waste feed, the process, the different processing factors involved, and the quality of the chemical recycling product.

Plastics are present in many aspects of our daily lives.

Results

This project will result in:

• insights about the role of new and improved sorting techniques of plastic waste streams

• insights into criteria determining plastic waste stream suitability as feed for gasification or pyrolysis processes

• knowledge on how pyrolysis and gasification as chemical recycling techniques of polyolefins-based packaging/ mixed plastic waste can contribute to make full plastic recycling feasible.

• perspectives of future roles in a circular value chain for all value chain partners

These results are a relevant addition in the creation of a value chain to address and solve the issue of polyolefin-based plastic waste to be discarded and to be left unused or under-used (via incineration). In addition, this helps to establish a circular society in relation to polyolefin-based plastics.

Project partners

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