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Are you scared of the plastic boogeyman?

It’s no secret that plastics recycling is booming. Just ask the 225 000 visitors and 33 500 exhibitors at the Kshow in Düsseldorf, Germany, over the last two weeks. So what did I spy walking the halls?

The venue was buzzing with energy. Robotic arms were not just sorting scrap, they were playing chess on a giant suspended board, playing drums and DJ-ing to catch the attention of passers-by.

Smart sorting solutions and integrated systems were surveyed while sipping a cold beer and eating a salted pretzel with bratwurst. The mood was relaxed yet a curiosity and eagerness clung to the air. For plastics recyclers across the world, this was the time and the place to showcase what they’ve been working on ever since the pandemic hit. Especially since a new report by Greenpeace slams plastic recycling as a ‘dead end’.

No pressure, then.

An interesting fact is that the global recycled plastics market was worth almost US$ 28 billion last year. This is projected to exceed US$ 43.5 billion by 2026. Quite a leap in five years, no?

Liquid gold?

‘It’s incredible to see how much has changed in just a few years!’ says Andreas Jäger, global sales manager at Steinert. ‘Chemical recycling was but a blip on the radar at the 2019 edition of the K-Show. Now look around. Chemical recycling is everywhere.’

Market data backs up this observation. UK-based research firm IDTechEx forecasts that pyrolysis and depolymerisation plants will recycle over 20 million tonnes of plastic scrap per year by 2033. For anyone curious to learn more on the topic, be sure to check out an upcoming webinar.

Amongst the innovators exhibiting at the Kshow was Carboliq. The German start-up converts mixed and heavily contaminated plastics into a ‘high quality liquid resource’, which it believes is an important milestone towards the end of waste.

Carboliq relies on a one-stage process to liquefy solid hydrocarbons under atmospheric pressure and process temperatures below 400°C.

‘Our process is suitable for multi-layer film as well, which represents a big waste volume these days,’ says project manager Florian Hanser. ‘There must be an answer for all plastics,’ he argues. ‘It’s great that there are bottle-to-bottle plants but not all product types are so easily returned to the loop.’

On the other hand, chemical recycler Recycling Technologies has gone under this September. The UK company, which had been fine-tuning its patented technology since 2012, was not able to acquire additional funding to take its process to the next level. Company founder Adrian Griffiths hopes interested parties will step forward to preserve the recycler’s intellectual property.

Room for everyone

Jäger is quick to add that, as a solutions provider, Steinert does not ‘pick sides’ and believe there is room for everyone in the industry. ‘We look at it from a practical perspective; all recyclers need sorting equipment, no matter what they do with their scrap in the end. Who are we to judge them?’

While some count mechanical recycling as ‘the only real recycling’, Jäger argues there is no single right way to do it. ‘It all depends on the situation, the material quality, the total carbon footprint. Ultimately, it has to make sense, it has to be feasible.’

The idea that chemical recyclers are being cast as the bad guys makes him laugh. ‘Technology is not the enemy. Well, you could say the consumer is. Or rather, our bad habits,’ the sales manager responds. ‘We need innovative technology to get to the next step. No solution is 100% perfect, especially not if it’s relatively new.’

Stay tuned >> for a deep dive into the ‘scary’ Greenpeace report!

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