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Plastics of the future will have many past lives

Reading time: 4 min

To enjoy the benefits of plastic without it costing the Earth, we need to move towards circularity. This will only be possible using a range of recycling technologies – including chemical recycling.

The wonder material

It is no mystery why plastic is the preferred material in so many applications today – it is affordable, lightweight, durable, and extremely versatile, making it indispensable across almost every sector. 

However, the high volume of plastic accumulating in the environment (an estimated 20 million tons annually) means plastic waste is now widely recognised as a significant problem. Consumers, corporations, and policymakers are all taking action to tackle it, such as the upcoming EU regulations to reduce, reuse and recycle packaging

The aim is to shift towards a circular model of consumption, in which resources are recovered and reused – as opposed to today’s unsustainable linear model, in which raw materials are used to make products and are disposed of at the end of their lifetime. The circular approach is often referred to as ‘closing the loop’. 

Steps towards circularity

Closing the loop for plastics means maximizing the amount of waste plastic that gets recycled – and there are some positive signs of change, with plastic recycling rates in the EU at 42% in 2022. This can be largely attributed to mechanical recycling. However, although mechanical recycling is making a major dent in the amount of plastic waste, there are still some limitations.  

In conventional mechanical recycling, plastic waste is put through a series of physical processes: being shredded into flakes; washed; melted; and moulded into pellets which can be used as feedstock for new plastic products. But plastic can only be recycled this way a certain number of times before it degrades too much to be usable – and many types of plastic are challenging to mechanically recycle, meaning they must be sent to specialist facilities. 

One of the most important steps we can take towards circularity is to widen the range of recycling technologies being used, so less plastic is dismissed as ‘unrecyclable’ and consigned to landfill or incineration. 

Chemical recycling helps close the loop

Mechanical recycling breaks down a material but does not alter its chemical structure – chemical recycling does. 

© Borealis

This refers to a diverse set of technologies which use chemical processes to turn plastic waste into feedstocks from which new products can be made. These include depolymerisation, pyrolysis, and hydrothermal treatment, each technology suited to different waste streams. For example, pyrolysis mostly targets mixed waste streams of polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), breaking them down into a range of shorter-chain hydrocarbons by heating them in the absence of oxygen (‘cracking’). The hydrocarbon product can be made into a range of new petrochemical products and materials that have the same quality as products made from conventional feedstock.

Chemical recycling shows that plastics that would otherwise be challenging or uneconomic to recycle can still be recycled. It also has the advantage of not degrading the properties of the plastic in the way that mechanical recycling does. This results in very high-quality plastic that can be used for sensitive applications, as well as allowing them to be recycled multiple times. 

Mechanical and chemical recycling are complementary technologies, with different advantages and drawbacks. While mechanical recycling is an already established recycling method, especially for mono-streams, chemical recycling closes the gap by addressing hard-to-recycle waste streams, and produces materials that are safe for contact-sensitive applications. In 2022, total chemical recycling capacities for all plastics amounted to just 100,000 tonnes – although this is expected to increase to 1.2 million tonnes by 2025. 

Our chemical recycling technology

At OMV, we have developed our own patented chemical recycling technology, ReOil®, to convert plastic waste into pyrolysis oil – which is primarily used to produce high-performing and sustainable plastics.

Our pilot plant has been fully operational since 2018: it is fully integrated into our Schwechat refinery, ISCC PLUS certified, and has accumulated 27,000 hours in operation turning waste material into feedstock so our subsidiary, Borealis can produce new polyolefins. This year, a demo plant will go live, demonstrating a processing capacity of 16,000 tonnes per year. Our next step would be an industrial-scale chemical recycling plant with a capacity of up to 200,000 tonnes per year.

From there, we are taking ReOil® international: We have partnered with Wood for the international licensing of ReOil®. As a global leader in consulting and engineering solutions for energy and materials, Wood will maximize the worldwide footprint of ReOil®, ensuring the benefits are felt as widely as possible.

We believe chemical recycling technologies like ReOil® are a powerful complement to mechanical recycling. Alongside measures to reduce and reuse plastics, these two technologies are helping us close the loop.

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