Chemical recycling end-of-life plastic has its champions and its critics. IDTechEx does not believe these advanced recycling solutions are the much-promised silver bullet, but nor do they think they have no role to play in a circular economy. As the pyrolysis and depolymerization projects ramp up, one question is where the recycled material will be used?
There are several market drivers for increasing plastic recycling rates, including government legislation and public demand. This has led companies across the value chain to embrace this challenge with a variety of pledges and goals; this has resulted in many looking at advanced recycling processes. With all this attention and market activity, consumers and regulators will both want to know where these recycled products can be found.
Before looking at those applications, it is important to acknowledge that an ongoing debate is how these processes are classified and recognized for their green credentials (or lack thereof). The outcome of this will have a significant impact on their uptake.
Equally, how this recycling will be tracked and held to account will be a key area to watch. Most petrochemical companies favor a mass balance approach, often stating it is the only feasible approach. However, there is a lot of criticism over the current methods, with many calling for stricter regulations to avoid “creative accounting” and improving the transparency for consumers.
Six main areas are looking to adopt chemically recycled products.
First and most prominent is, unsurprisingly, FMCG packaging. Major companies such as Unilever, Modelēz, Nestlé, Henkel, and more have all launched (or are in the process of launching) products using chemically recycled plastics. These are in partnership with major chemical companies such as Sabic, BASF, Total, and many more, all of whom may be developing advanced recycling capabilities in-house or partnering with emerging technology providers.
It should be noted that there are, of course, also regulatory approval requirements for several sectors, most notably for food packaging. Many of these applications utilize pyrolysis oil with a range of resultant polymers generated from a mixed-waste feedstock, but another key area is in the depolymerization of PET bottles. PET bottles present not only a suitable source of homogeneous feedstock but also an end-use market. Again, there have been announcements here from major players such as P&G with Eastman and L’Oréal with Carbios. Of course, these applications are still at an early stage, but they will be an increasingly common sight in shopping carts.
Like the bottles highlighted above, textiles are another area of interest here, both as a waste source and application. Several fibers are being explored, but most of the commercial focus is on polyester and nylon. This is being seen from brands that have built sustainability as a core part of their brand, such as Patagonia, and major chemical companies in this field, like Teijin.
It is also not just chemical conversion or depolymerization processes that are active here. Secondary dissolution processes are a viable solution for the purification and re-use of PET and cellulosic fibers; this is shown from the likes of Worn Again and their partnership with Sulzer Chemical and H&M.
Another key application area is the automotive industry. There are two sides to the chemical recycling role here, firstly, it is making use of automotive shredder residue (ASR), and secondly, it is generating recycled plastics that have properties capable of replacing the fossil-based incumbents. Automotive-grade resins have been launched from the likes of Sabic and Repsol and projects between USCAR and Eastman, JLR and BASF, and others in this space.
In terms of some of those further along towards commercialization, in 2022, Audi announced a seatbelt buckle for the Q8 e-Tron in work done in collaboration with LyondellBasell and Mercedes-Benz put into series production a door handle that used pyrolysis oil from end-of-life tires developed with Pyrum and BASF. Expect to see several more announcements in 2023 and beyond.
Although less reported, an emerging opportunity is in the electronics space, mainly for PC or PC/ABS blends. Electronic devices are like every other industry in facing pressure to incorporate more recycled material, but much like clothing, consumer-facing premium brands can also benefit from promoting their sustainability credentials.
Including mechanically recycled PC is well-known, although often facing challenges on sourcing. There are a few emerging examples of PC from pyrolysis oil, including from Lotte Chemical and Sabic. Depolymerization of PC has been explored for several decades but with minimal commercial traction to date.
However, depolymerization of PS to generate styrene monomers is a key growth area. Styrene monomers can go back to forming PS but are also being used elsewhere, such as for SBR or ABS. It has been reported to IDTechEx that there are already commercial examples of chemically recycled styrene being used by electronics companies.
Carpets and mattresses
The final two areas to be discussed are both promising waste sources and application areas: carpets and mattresses. For carpets, this is mainly looking at nylon, polypropylene, and polyester. There is, again, a range of commercial activity; this is most clearly shown by companies like Aquafil. For mattresses, the main area is in converting polyurethane foams to usable polyols. This has seen industrial facilities established from Dow and Repsol and activity from Covestro, Evonik and BASF; it is certainly a strong growth area not to be overlooked.
The chemical recycling of plastic waste is a rapidly evolving industry, from regulatory decisions to emerging technology solutions. 2023 will see debate will rage on surrounding the merits of chemical recycling and question marks remain over both the economic and environmental viability. Despite this, use cases are already on the market and are ever-expanding.
IDTechEx provides technical market intelligence and has launched a new report, “Chemical Recycling and Dissolution of Plastics 2023-2033”. This report provides company appraisals, technology analysis, and independent market forecasts.