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Advanced Recycling of Polystyrene in a Sustainable, Closed-Loop System

INEOS Styrolution Yogurt cup example of PP packaging
What the future holds for polystyrene, a “misunderstood” resin when it comes to recyclability.
INEOS Styrolution works to bring advanced recycling of polystyrene to a commercial scale with help of partners for a more sustainable, circular-economy-driven future.

What if you could take leftover chocolate cake and recover the flour from it in a pure, clean form? You could then take that flour and make a new cake, or you could make bread, pasta, or lemon bars. In fact, you could repeat this process over and over, utilizing the same supply of flour for all your baking needs — a circular economy of flour!

Innovative engineers are in fact, working right now on technologies very similar to the scenario above except using plastics. This technology is advanced recycling.

How advanced recycling works.

Advanced recycling works to depolymerize polymer chains by breaking them down into their chemical building blocks, and then performing separations to recover the target material. This precise and efficient process recovers monomers — the chemical building blocks of plastic — with purity that’s comparable with that of the original raw material as in the flour example.

It may be surprising to note that one of the best-suited plastics for advanced recycling is polystyrene. While polystyrene is often used for a wide variety of durable and single-use applications, it is sometimes referred to as a “challenging polymer” when concerning recyclability. Ineos Styrolution likes to think of it as, simply misunderstood. In fact, polystyrene’s simplistic polymer chain structure and low ceiling temperature, enable high recovery rates and low energy use during advanced recycling, making it an extremely well-suited target for this truly innovative technology.

The styrene monomer product recovered from advanced recycling isn’t restricted to a new life as polystyrene, either. Styrene monomer is the raw material used in a wide variety of styrenic specialty polymers. It’s often used in extremely durable applications such as automotive, household, and electronics. In this way, using advanced recycling, a simple foam coffee cup could be upcycled into both a part for computers as well as parts in the truck used to haul them reducing the fuel required for the shipment versus some alternative materials!

PS recycled into yogurt cups.

Ineos Styrolution is currently undertaking initiatives to develop advanced recycling partnerships and bring the technologies to a commercial scale. One such project aims to build a facility at the company’s operations in Channahon, IL, utilizing advanced recycling technology developed by their partner based in Portland, OR, Agilyx Technologies. Early-stage engineering for this project began in 2019.

Ineos Styrolution produced a tangible demonstration case for the K Fair in late 2019, by using 100% recycled polystyrene to produce yogurt cups with European OEM partner, Unternehmensgruppe Theo Müller, which is based in Fischach, Germany. 100% recycled styrene monomer from advanced recycling partners in North America was polymerized into 100% recycled polystyrene plastic. That plastic was then extruded and thermoformed into yogurt cups! Polystyrene recycled in this manner is approved for use in both food and medical applications, due to the purity of the product derived from the advanced recycling process. This means advanced recycling enables a truly closed loop from cup to cup.

The future of polystyrene.

Ineos Styrolution views these ongoing advancements as the seeds to a thriving polystyrene circular economy. By demonstrating that advanced recycling delivers quality polystyrene product on a commercial scale, demand for recycled polystyrene- and therefore polystyrene waste- will only continue to increase. With that demand driving collection and sorting programs, INEOS Styrolution envisions a not-so-distant future in which a stop at the coffee shop yields a product in a foam container that keeps its contents hot (or cold!) for hours, while keeping the hand holding it cool. Moreover, when that beverage has been consumed, both the cup and its lid will be thrown into a recycling bin without being separated, since both those items will travel on to become new, and equally valuable styrenic materials to keep society moving forward, sustainably!

Cassie Bradley is INEOS Styrolution’s Sustainability and Circular Economy Commercial Manager, leading these initiatives for the company across North American. Cassie works with leaders in the emerging polystyrene recycling industry to create valuable partnerships and grow the Polystyrene Circular Economy supporting the company's advancements in styrenics. She holds a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is currently pursuing an MBA at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

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