Waste not, not waste
Waste not, not waste
May 8, 2019
Plastic Free World Conference & Expo speaker Richard Daley explains to Nick Bradley why he sees plastic waste as a resource – and how ReNew ELP’s chemical recycling technology could be the panacea for plastic pollution
The old adage ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ could scarcely be more appropriate for the chemical recycling sector which, while still in its commercial infancy, appears to hold so much promise to curtail plastic pollution that it’s difficult to not get carried away. It’s also a market that could be worth at least US$50-60 billion a year by 2030. Treasure indeed.
ReNew ELP’s managing director Richard Daley (pictured above) is keeping his feet firmly on the ground though, despite his company’s many achievements over the past 12 months – including most recently scooping the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s FlexPack Recovery Challenge award. “It’s a developing, disruptive technology market,” he acknowledges. “But it’s a market that is outpacing the regulation and policy surrounding it.”
It’s a developing, disruptive technology market. But it’s a market that is outpacing the regulation and policy surrounding it
Of course, legislation playing catchup with innovation is nothing unusual – social media, blockchain, autonomous vehicles and even e-cigarettes are prime reference points. Yet given the global focus on plastic pollution – and intensifying scrutiny on the plastics sector – there is a sense that the associated environmental benefits of chemical recycling and its integral role in fostering a circular economy in plastics could accelerate the introduction of the necessary legal frameworks. In the meantime, companies including but not limited to ReNew ELP will continue to alter the landscape.
There is certainly a need for some fresh thinking, as Daley and countless others believe the current system of mechanical recycling has peaked in terms of its potential. “The quality of the recyclate is not sufficient to replace virgin plastic on a large scale,” he feels. “But that’s not the case with our CAT-HTR technology. What we do is break down the polymeric structure into liquid products that can directly replace traditional fossil resource as a feed-stock to create virgin polymer. There’s no limit to the number of times these products can be recycled, which means we are able to help create a truly circular economy in plastics.”
There’s no limit to the number of times these products can be recycled, which means we are able to help create a truly circular economy in plastics
CAT-HTR uses water as the ‘agent of change’. When heated to a supercritical state, the water exhibits the physical and chemical properties that are used within the process to crack the carbon bonds in the plastic. Hydrogen is donated from the water to the reaction products, which subsequently results in a stable and saturated product that can be stored and easily transported. Additionally, due to heat transfer through the direct contact of supercritical water (SCW) and the plastics, the technology is uniquely scalable.
“Since the plastic directly contacts with the SCW, the reaction conditions are readily controlled, which provides higher yields than other conversion processes,” Daley explains. “As a result, you can also alter the distribution of products, allowing recycling plants to maximize the production of specific fractions and hence offer higher operational flexibility. Because of this process and controllable reactions, we don’t suffer from char formation or unwanted by-products such as dioxins.”
Additionally, with CAT-HTR, a wide range of polymers can be processed, including the traditionally troublesome polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polystyrene (PS), while contaminants such as organics and paper do not pose a problem either. “This means we can process more diverse feed materials that are currently difficult to deal with,” Daley adds. “And as it is a water-based process, there’s no need to dry the waste plastic feed-stock.”
Even to the layman, chemical recycling technologies such as CAT-HTR would appear to paint plastic waste in a whole new light. “Instead of being something that is either buried or burned, we view it [plastic waste] as a resource that can contribute to a low-carbon, low-waste society, and has the capability to stimulate the growth of an entirely new industry sector,” Daley continues. “Our business model works on the principle that we can create valuable products from a waste feed-stock that has little or negative value to suppliers, in doing so generating high returns that offset comparatively low processing costs.”
Instead of being something that is either buried or burned, we view it [plastic waste] as a resource that can contribute to a low-carbon, low-waste society, and has the capability to stimulate the growth of an entirely new industry sector
Hence why that eight million tons of plastic trash that is reportedly dumped into our oceans each and every year is quite literally treasure to companies in chemical recycling. “On a dry, ash-free basis, our process has proved to convert >80% of plastic feed-stocks into valuable liquid products, so based on that we could convert that eight million tons of plastic into around 6.5 million tons of liquid hydrocarbon product,” Daley confirms. How you recover what’s floating around in gyres the size of Texas is a different matter. So, too, is how you prevent the 100 million tons of plastic waste that has already leaked into the oceans from doubling by 2030. Such figures are staggering.
Undoubtedly an epidemic, plastic pollution is the most talked-about environmental story of the past few years – even the Collins English Dictionary declared ‘single-use’ as their 2018 Word of the Year. “It’s lodged in the public consciousness and demand for a huge reduction in plastic manufacture is intensifying as well as a much greater effort to clean up areas of plastic pollution, much of which is made up of packaging,” says Daley. “The trend is very much plastic-negative, which could ultimately lead to demand for an outright ban on single-use plastics.”
Over the next five years, we’ll see more and more single-use items either leave the market altogether or, where possible, transition to more sustainable alternatives
In the face of public pressure, governments all around the world are actioning plans. Taiwan announced a ban on single-use bags, straws and utensils – all of which must be phased out by 2030. Numerous US states, Canadian provinces and African countries have followed suit by prohibiting plastic bags, cutlery and bottles, with some even imposing heavy fines on offenders. “It seems awareness is leaning more towards outright bans over environmental concerns than it is towards sustainability,” Daley notes. “Over the next five years, we’ll see more and more single-use items either leave the market altogether or, where possible, transition to more sustainable alternatives. Plastic has the potential to become taboo but the danger lies in focus shifting away from recycling and sustainability and towards drastic reduction in production and supply.”
Surely, though, the notion of a plastic-free society is simply unrealistic? “I can’t envision it,” Daley responds. “Drive towards a completely plastic-free future is perhaps misguided. Plastic aids huge developments in technology, travel, food and medicine. Consider sterile syringes, intravenous blood bags and medical tubing – products such as these have revolutionized healthcare around the world. Plastic is used in every area of modern life from textiles to teabags, shaping society as we know it. And it’ll take much more than a ban on single-use straws to counteract the levels of environmental damage that we’re now witnessing.”
So, what of the alternatives to the abovementioned applications? “Momentum for change in the production and reclamation of sustainable plastic is building thanks to media coverage,” Daley says. “The demand is there, but perhaps voices aren’t loud enough. It’s really important to ensure that news of sustainable technology reaches far and wide, and also begins to develop momentum and public backing.
While society leans toward demanding a plastic-free future, what I think is more important is to highlight the benefits of plastic in modern life and instead showcase ways to create a circular production-recover-recycle model
“While society leans toward demanding a plastic-free future, what I think is more important is to highlight the benefits of plastic in modern life and instead showcase ways to create a circular production-recover-recycle model,” Daley concludes. “We believe that higher levels of focus should be on the reclamation and re-use of plastic. Yes, a reduction in excessive output and consumption of single-use plastics can only alleviate environmental concerns where re-use strategies are not currently in place, but with technology such as CAT-HTR, equal emphasis should be placed on upscaling the technology to form a truly circular economy rather than vilifying plastic.”
Plastic Free World Conference & Expo 2019 will take place from Thursday 27 June to Friday 28 June, at the Kap Europa, Frankfurt Messe, Frankfurt, Germany. To register for this highly focused and solutions-driven event, please click here. For sponsorship and exhibition opportunities, please email email@example.com