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Plastic scrap may be complex but it is not a worthless waste stream

Recyclers have been reacting to a media investigation in the United States suggesting plastic scrap is ‘not valuable’ and ‘never has been’, a situation that prevents the economical recycling of the material. Negative reports by National Public Radio and PBS’s ‘Frontline’ programme, however, overlook the power of innovation.

The investigation, broadcast earlier in the year, considered the late 1980s when plastics industry was under fire for the amount of waste and pollution it was causing. It claimed: ‘The industry would publicly promote recycling as the solution to the waste crisis – despite internal industry doubts from almost the beginning that widespread plastic recycling could ever be economically viable.’

A former lobbyist for Society of the Plastics Industry, Lewis Freeman, told journalists, ‘There was never an enthusiastic belief that recycling was ultimately going to work in a significant way.’ Despite this, another society executive Larry Thomas said the industry promoted recycling heavily because ‘If the public thinks recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.’

The need for comprehensive recycling was defended by the author and Bloomberg journalist Adam Minter who insists an answer has to be found to the rapid growth in the  production and use of plastics in emerging markets – with no reason to think demand will weaken.

‘Without a recycling solution, those tonnages are bound for landfills and incinerators,’ responds Minter – author of ‘Junkyard Planet’ and ‘Second-hand’. He says the global recycling industry has a good track record of transforming what was previously ‘unrecyclable’ into useful products and, based on previous innovation, it is likely to achieve further milestones.

Minter likens the plastics problem to the ‘eyesore’ of abandoned vehicles scattered across the US in the 70s. The inherent material value of these dumped cars was finally recognised by Texas-based entrepreneur Alton Newell who developed a complex shredding machine that reduced end-of-life vehicles to fist-sized chunks that could be separated by magnets and other processes. The machine is now a National Historic Mechanical Engineering landmark.

‘In many respects, plastics present a similar problem. Manufacturers developed them without any plan for disposal or recycling,’ Minter argues. ‘Worse, different plastics are often used together and separating them can be uneconomical.’

He adds that a decade ago, China was home to tens of thousands of small, profitable businesses dedicated to recycling plastics. However, recycling in a safe and environmentally sound manner is costs more time and money. 

Thanks to China’s restrictions, combined with heightened awareness of ocean plastics, manufacturers and regulators ‘are finally paying attention’. As a result, reuse and recycling could be worth US$ 60 billion (EUR 51 billion) for the global petrochemicals and plastics sector by 2030.

Nor has innovation been stuck on ‘pause’. Instead, numerous promising R&D projects have been launched in recent years. Notable examples include:

  • Agilyx is transforming ‘dirty plastics’ into the feedstock of the future
  • Ineos Styrolution and UK firm Recycling Technologies have joined forces to tackle polystyrene 
  • Spain’s technical institute Amiplas is using selected enzymes and micro-organisms to recycle multi-layer plastic scrap
  • Recycling firm APK AG and printing inks producer Siegwerk successfully completed de-inking trials of twofold printed low density polyethylene (LDPE) films
  • Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology Mandi have developed a new way to create top quality face masks from recycled plastic bottles.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. R&D projects are being added regularly, while existing ones graduate from lab- or pilot-scale to demonstration plants and then, hopefully, commercial-scale facilities. Recyclers argue it is a shame to focus purely on the negative reputation of plastics when innovators are doing so much the industry can be proud of.

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