Chemical recycling – Towards a circular economy for plastics

The global challenge of combating plastic pollution has gained increased attention in the recent years. For example, in 2018 the “European Strategy for Plastic in a Circular Economy” was adopted with the aim of transforming the way plastic products are designed, produced, used and recycled. As a concrete example the EU aims to achieve 100 % recyclability for all plastic packaging before 2030. These initiatives represent the first efforts towards responsible and correct handling of plastic waste, which is vitally important in the years to come and to achieve a circular economy for plastics.

Responsible handling of plastic waste as sketched in the circular economy mainly involves re-use and recycling of waste products. Recycling of plastics can occur through mechanical or chemical recycling. Mechanical recycling involves recycling of waste plastics into “new” plastic without changing the basic structure of the material. Till today, this method has dominated the recycling market, however, it comes with certain limitations due to high sorting requirements and decreasing material quality in each cycle. Chemical recycling is emerging as an innovative alternative or complementary method to mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling allows recycling of plastics that today cannot (easily) be recycled by mechanical recycling, e.g. mixed plastic waste, plastic with residues, or multi-layer food packaging.

How does it work?
The term chemical recycling applies to various technologies that convert plastic waste into its original building blocks; polymers, monomers or atoms. This is done, in general terms, by treating plastic waste with a combination of water, heat, pressure and enzymes or catalysts in order to break the resin down into its constituent parts. These parts can be repolymerized into virgin-quality resins, used as fuels, or as raw materials for other products. Technologies included in the term chemical recycling are pyrolysis & gasification (recycling via heat) and more chemically oriented recycling processes such as chemical depolymerization, catalytic cracking & reforming, and hydrogenation.

Why is it important?
Chemical recycling is currently being researched and developed by many companies and research institutes worldwide. To date, a full-scale commercial chemical recycling plant has not been realised. However, in the EU it is of increased importance that such initiatives are realised given the ambitious goals of the Plastics Strategy. Chemical recycling is viewed by many as the best way to close the loop on plastic supply chains and subsequently fulfil EU’s visions for a circular economy.

Northern Netherlands as hotspot
The Northern Netherlands’ is in a good starting position to realise the transition towards “circular plastics” in the near future. This region is already known as a centre of expertise in plastics and chemicals and is currently putting its focus into sustainable alternatives for conventional plastics. For example, at Chemport Europe – the ecosystem in the industrial cluster of Delfzijl (Groningen) / Heerenveen (Friesland) / Emmen (Drenthe) – substantial effort is being made in the recycling of plastics from both companies and knowledge institutes. As concrete examples, the companies Cumapol and Morssinkhof have developed the CuRe technology, a method of chemical recycling that converts coloured polyester into new polymers. Furthermore, a National Test Centre for Circular Plastics has been established in Heerenveen for companies to have their products and waste streams tested for recyclability.

We as Ecoras find ourselves in the centre of the innovation and developments happening with regards to plastics recycling in Northern Netherlands. With substantial knowledge and experience as well as an extensive network in the chemical/plastics industry we are aiming to play an important role in accelerating the transition towards a sustainable future for plastics. We will do this by advising and supporting companies and governments in the identification and development of effective and viable solutions for responsible handling of plastic waste. Together with my team of enthusiastic and experienced colleagues I am excited about being part of the future of circular plastics.


*This blog is from summer 2020