If the media is anything to go by, our world appears to be drowning in mountains of waste. Not only is this a burden for people and the environment, it also means that many valuable raw materials are lost – plastics for example. After all, even if not obvious at first glance, plastic film, fruit packaging, yoghurt pots – these are all potentially valuable feedstock for producing recyclate. As long as the technology works, that is. All over the world people are working hard to build plants that recycle mixed plastics in a sensible way, thereby helping establish a circular economy for plastics.
It is a full decade since OMV started working on its own technology for the chemical recycling of plastics. In that time, the leap has been made from a laboratory setup to a pilot plant fully integrated into the refinery. At its Schwechat site, OMV is currently building the next larger ReOil plant with an annual capacity of 16,000 metric tons of used plastics. Serving as an ideal complement to the well-established mechanical recycling processes, the ReOil plant in the Schwechat Refinery converts used plastics into synthetic feedstock for the production of new plastics by Borealis. This can subsequently become feedstock for the production of new plastics by Borealis. The focus now is on procuring the right “feed” for this and subsequent plants. And that turns out to be far from easy, despite the supposed mountains of waste.
Plastic waste as raw material
After all, not all waste is created equal. Not all waste is suitable for chemical or mechanical recycling. And before waste can be turned back into valuable raw materials, it has to be collected and sorted. Depending on the source of the waste and the type of collection, a rough distinction is made between three waste streams that contain used plastics: Residual waste, commercial and industrial waste, and the waste from the recycling bin. When it comes to OMV’s chemical recycling technology, only certain types of plastics contained in these streams are relevant: “It is primarily polyolefins that we need as feedstock for the ReOil plant – and only fractions that are not already mechanically recyclable and currently go into landfill or incineration are relevant. It is precisely this waste that we need to procure on a large scale so that our plants can run reliably in the future”, explains Anna Platzer, who is responsible for procuring raw materials for the ReOil plants at OMV.
From sorting plant to feedstock
The ultimate goal is to use mixed plastic waste – which is mainly sent for incineration at present – to produce enough recycled material for the sustainable production of goods and packaging. This can only happen with reliable partners. Waste management companies like the German Interzero Plastics Recycling Group (IPR), the European leader in sorting lightweight packaging waste, are one such partner. “Interzero sorts around 30% of lightweight packaging waste in Germany, which makes the company an ideal partner for us”, says Anna Platzer. In an innovative sorting plant in southern Germany, OMV and IPR will transform the mixed plastics left over after sorting of lightweight packaging waste into chemical recycling feedstock thereby ensuring sufficient supplies for OMV’s ReOil plants. “With an annual input capacity of 260,000 metric tons, the new sorting plant will be the first of its kind to produce feedstock for OMV’s chemical recycling on a large scale”, says Anna Platzer. “The cooperation with Interzero Plastics Recycling gives us access to a third of the sorting rest from lightweight packaging waste in Europe’s largest market”.
Sensibly recycling even more plastic
However, there can also be plastic waste suitable for chemical recycling hiding in the residual waste. “We believe that in future, post-consumer plastics could be sorted out of residual waste and processed so that they serve as a source of raw materials for our ReOil plants”, says Anna Platzer.
What’s more, mechanical recycling generates by-products and sorting residues, which are mostly incinerated at present. OMV would like to open up some of this for chemical recycling – whereby further processing steps are also required depending on the quality.
Which brings us back full circle: Not all waste is created equal – and there is a great deal of pioneering spirit and partnership in reasonable recycling.