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Recycling the “unrecyclable”: Experts highlight the benefits of “advanced” methods for a circular packaging industry

#Recycling the “unrecyclable”: Experts highlight the benefits of “advanced” methods for a circular packaging industry

31 Jan 2024 — Advanced recycling allows turning hard-to-recycle plastic waste streams into virgin-quality raw materials for new plastics. According to recycling industry experts, this enables the production of recycled content even in the most demanding applications, such as food-contact packaging or medical applications.

Heikki Färkkilä, vice president for Chemical Recycling at Neste, tells Packaging Insights that advanced recycling also enables reviving polymer material that has already been mechanically recycled once or several times. “We consider advanced recycling a strong addition to the circularity of plastics and a complementary solution to existing recycling technologies.”

Recycling plastic waste is traditionally limited to mechanically grounding and melting via an extruder. Mechanical recycling is an effective process but only applicable to a limited set of plastics, Jan Willem Muller, co-founder at Infinity Recycling tells us. The process can also lead to quality reduction, he says.

Advanced recycling recycles the “unrecyclable,” including plastic waste that cannot be recycled mechanically, using existing processes (chemical, thermal) to turn plastic waste back into their basic chemical ingredients.

“The technology generates a chemical product to a virgin material that can be integrated into the petrochemical infrastructure as a tradable commodity. It can process over 200 million tons of plastic waste annually, which is incinerated or disposed of in landfills or leaks. Manufacturing products with chemically recycled feedstock emits significantly less CO2 (-70%) than virgin fossil products that are incinerated,” says Muller.

Compiled packaging waste.Advanced recycling recycles the “unrecyclable,” turning plastic waste back into its basic chemical ingredients (Image credit: Neste).Tackling waste
Advanced recycling will become an interesting and relevant technology for the packaging industry, particularly food packaging, says Färkkilä. “It will allow the industry to meet ambitious targets for recycled content due to its ability to provide virgin-quality materials from low-quality plastic waste streams.”

“At the same time, it may help tackle plastic packaging waste streams that currently end up in incineration or landfill due to difficulties in recycling them. For the packaging industry especially recycling multilayer materials is valuable to combine product performance with recyclability.”

Neste started refining liquefied waste plastic on an industrial scale in 2020 and has since processed increasing volumes in several runs, passing 6,000 tons in cumulative volume processed at the end of last year.

“While unprocessed liquefied waste plastic is feasible in limited campaign runs, scaling up continuous processing requires the pretreatment and upgrading steps to remove impurities and to optimize the chemical composition,” says Färkkilä.

To get there, Neste has launched project Pulse, funded by the EU Innovation Fund and aims to implement proprietary technologies to pretreat and upgrade liquefied waste plastic and integrate these technologies into Neste’s refinery operations in Porvoo.

Increasing circularity
Neste RE is a drop-in solution that can replace fossil resources in the plastics value chain. It is available at scale and can replace fossil material without changes to the manufacturing process or product performance, explains Färkkilä.

“It can be produced from plastic waste through advanced recycling, which on the one hand contributes to combating plastic waste issues, and on the other hand reduces the GHG emissions versus the linear plastics value chain that sees plastics produced from fossil resources and plastic waste getting incinerated.”

“It can also be produced from bio-based materials, with an even lower carbon footprint. Hence, Neste RE can help packaging companies and brand owners reduce their scope 3 emissions and contribute to solving the plastic waste challenge,” says Färkkilä.

Circular Plastics FundWorkers in recycling facility. Neste has launched project Pulse to pretreat and upgrade liquefied plastic waste (Image credit: Neste).
Infinity Recycling invests in growing businesses that add tangible value by accelerating circularity in established markets, focusing on industries with billions in annual revenue, such as waste processing and plastics production.

The Circular Plastics Fund (CPF) invests in proven technologies (post-successful pilots) that operate profitably without gate fees and subsidies and have the potential to scale globally. The fund targets minority growth investments into companies to enable commercialization and subsequent expansion.

“CPF’s role is to catalyze the world’s transition to a closed loop plastics economy in which residual polymer waste streams, globally representing over 85% of plastic waste, are being converted into building blocks for the manufacturing of new plastics herewith significantly reducing the carbon footprint of the plastics economy and eliminating the world’s plastic waste problem,” says the capital firm’s co-founder.

Infinity Recycling provides companies with added value, such as leveraging experience with offtake contracts to structure and negotiate optimum offtake terms. “We facilitate durable revenue streams and advise on production specs to optimize commercial offtake.”

Muller stresses Infinity Recycling has the technical expertise to select profitable, scalable and sustainable technologies. It offers “operational and financial expertise across the plastics value chain.”

Infinity Recycling has the network and expertise to secure long-term contracted access to quality waste and facilitate efficient processing. We have connections with major waste collectors and processors, and expertise to identify homogeneous waste streams.”

Advanced recycling tech for packaging
Plastic is a lightweight, moldable, durable material that has become essential in various industries. Muller stresses that as plastic applications grow, so does global production. More than 60% of the total volume of plastic ever produced was made since 2001.

“In 2021, in Europe alone, the plastics industry generated €405 billion (US$439 billion) in annual revenue, directly employing more than 1.5 million people in an industry with over 52,000 companies. However, consumers are exerting pressure to eliminate plastic waste,” he says.

“Governments are reacting by passing the economic cost of plastic waste on to corporations. The new EU plastic tax on corporations using non-recycled packaging is estimated to raise €6–8 billion (approximately US$6.5–8.7 billion) yearly. Global brands also see a need to take more accountability and have committed to making significant changes.”

By Natalie Schwertheim

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