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It’s time we make recycling plastics economically attractive. Here’s how.

In 2017, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a British organization stimulating the development of a global circular economy, set out a vision for a New Plastics Economy. A future where plastics are no longer disposable, and are instead retained as a raw material. A society where the plastic cycle is closed- not only providing us with a cleaner environment, but also a financial benefit. After all, it is calculated that 95% of all packaging plastic is currently lost to the economy after use, a loss of 80 to 120 billion dollars. A cornerstone of the New Plastics Economy is an efficient and, equally importantly, profitable recycling industry. So, what are TopDutch companies and researchers doing to achieve that?

Breakthrough technology

A promising innovation is the chemical recycling of polyester (PET), a technology that is being extensively tested in the TopDutch region. ‘This technology makes it possible to transform the most polluted and colored PET plastics into new raw materials of the original quality. A big breakthrough’, says Jan Jager, lecturer in sustainable plastics at the NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences in Emmen. ‘So far, food packaging recycling has been done mechanically. This technique, which consists of washing, grinding and melting into new products, is extremely suitable for recycling PET bottles. But the technique is inadequate when it comes to items such as colored PET or colored polyester textiles.’

According to Jager, household plastic waste is often too dirty, and varies in color and composition. Large quantities end up in the incinerator. ‘In chemical recycling of PET, impure plastic is no longer a problem. In this process, the polymers are converted by a simple chemical reaction into the original building blocks from which new polymers can be made. That means big profits; a large stream of polluted plastics can be kept in the cycle thanks to chemical recycling.’

The chemical recycling of PET plastics was a research project in which the company Cumapol from Emmen collaborated on with three knowledge institutions. These were NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences and Windesheim University of Applied Sciences, united in Green PAC, and the University of Groningen. Initially, the technique has been tested on a small scale, within the walls of the educational institutions. 

The next step is to try the technology at the Cumapol plant. The company will be starting this year with a pilot production line where PET is chemically recycled. This is a good example of how innovation finds fertile soil in the TopDutch region. Thanks to the close connection between the business community and knowledge institutions, various innovations have already been made.

Becoming greener and cheaper

Cumapol originally produced polyester granules with oil as a raw material for the production of articles such as PET bottles, yarns and packaging. ‘That’s no longer necessary. Thanks to this new form of recycling, we’ll soon be making exactly the same granules, but now with polyesters extracted from household waste,’ says director Marco Brons. This makes Cumapol an international leader. Brons says: ‘the big advantage is that the raw material we obtain from chemical recycling can be used endlessly. This is not possible with mechanical recycling.’ According to the entrepreneur, this recycling method tackles what has, up until now, been a major problem. ‘Plastic processors often do not trust the quality of colored recycled PET and therefore - also due to the low price - often choose new plastics. Up to now, demand for recycled plastic has accounted for only 6% of the demand for plastic in Europe.’

There is another plus: ‘According to the Commodities Act, non-food packaging may only be processed into new food packaging after chemical recycling. In that respect, too, the plastic retains its value.’ According to Brons, the process of chemical recycling is reasonably simple in its basic form: ‘Polyesters consist of long chains of monomers. By adding a great deal of ethylene glycol, which is one of the monomers, the chains disintegrate, and a liquid is created that is easy to purify. We then remove the ethylene glycol and are left with clean PET granules’. Over the next three years, Cumapol will refine the technology and will do so together with the knowledge partners involved.

‘The new recycling method will be integrated into the existing Cumapol plant. This production line will process 25 metric kton per year.’ Also, since 2013, a line has been running with mechanical recycling of PET bottles. ‘This older technique is still preferred because it is cheaper and has a lesser CO2-impact’, says the Cumapol director.

Although more expensive, he believes that chemical recycling is economically viable because there are currently sufficient waste streams available. This is thanks to the national collection scheme of the packaging industry, known as ‘Plastic Heroes’. Since 2008, the initiative has been collecting large quantities of household food packaging every year. To ensure a continuous supply, Cumapol is working together with two local waste processors, who guarantee that Cumapol is never wanting for residual flows. ‘The line must run 24 hours a day, only then is it profitable.’ Cumapol's long-term goal is to further green the chemical recycling process and to reduce CO2 emissions.

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