Advanced chemical recycling technology shows promising results

Sustainability |  3 min. read

Could the water bottle you just threw in the recycling bin one day become the fuel that powers airplanes, commercial vehicles and more? Sounds like something out of a Back to the Future movie. But with the emergence of advanced recycling, that future is now.

A discarded plastic water bottle can take roughly 450 years to completely decompose, which is why we try to recycle it. But the predominant method in recent decades, called mechanical recycling, can be hampered by contamination in materials and degradation, which ultimately produces weaker, less-valuable plastics. That’s in large part why a paltry 9 percent of the world’s plastic waste ends up recycled.

Today, some of the world’s leading petrochemical companies are fast-advancing new recycling methods that can return plastics to their original building-block petrochemicals in a matter of hours, rather than 450 years. Those ingredients can then be used to make pretty much anything that makes modern life possible: running shoes, kayaks, car parts, medical supplies, solar panels, even fuels that power airplanes and commercial vehicles.

How it works

In traditional mechanical recycling, certain plastics are shredded then melted into uniform pellets of large molecules, or polymers, which are used to create new products.  This can only happen a limited number of times, as the process weakens the plastics over time.

Advanced recycling technology, including molecular recycling, gasification and pyrolysis, are all ways to reduce plastics to different substances that can serve as feedstocks for petrochemicals; fuels for trucks, airplanes and ships; and, the original petrochemical building blocks (monomers) themselves. Returning polymers (plastics) to monomers means that they can be recycled over and over again with minimal weakening or deteriorating.

One pyrolysis process, often called “plastics to fuel,” is how that discarded water bottle can one day be turned into diesel, kerosene and other valuable fuels. The process thermally degrades plastic waste at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen, preventing combustion and causing the chemical bonds that create plastic to break apart and form different petroleum components.

What’s the potential impact? According to a 2011 study out of Columbia University, if all plastics landfilled were converted by pyrolysis to a fuel oil, “they would produce an estimated 87 million barrels of oil per year, or 3.6 billion gallons, enough to power six million cars for one year.

Pyrolysis is also used, with different plastic feedstocks and operating conditions, to take waste polymers like Styrofoam® and return them to their original monomers – in this case styrene. That means those food containers and cups can be recycled over and over again.

Who’s doing it?

Dow has a pilot project going in a few U.S. cities, including Boise, Idaho, to divert plastic waste from landfills to factories to reuse as fuels or to repurpose into other products.

Last year, Shell announced an ambitious goal to transition one million tons of plastic waste by pyrolysis into liquid feedstock – think naphtha – in its global plants by 2025. The company, for example, launched a pilot at a Louisiana plant to turn that feedstock into raw materials for new products.

LyondellBasell recently announced a similar goal of converting typically difficult to recycle plastic waste into feedstock, which will be used to produce items like for food contact materials and healthcare products.

Meanwhile, Ineos Sytrolution has developed partnerships to break down difficult-to-recycle polystyrene products like Stryofoam into its monomers, reusing them to make new, just-as-strong polystyrene products.

Last year, BP agreed with Ohio-based RES Polyflow to buy up to 16 million gallons per year of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel and naphtha feedstocks.

And at Washington State University, scientists last year announced they’ve found a way to turn old water bottles, milk bottles and plastic bags into jet fuel using high temperatures and a carbon catalyst.

The end-game? Eliminating waste and continually reusing our world’s resources.

Now that’s a future worthy of backing.