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Chemical Recycling Startup Thinks Globally, Acts Locally

Plastic Energy’s proprietary Thermal Anaerobic Technology converts end-of-life plastic waste into hydrocarbon oil. A modular plant design makes the technology adaptable both to the needs of multinationals and developing economies with limited infrastructure.

Norbert Sparrow

April 14, 2020

8 Min Read
Chemical Recycling Startup Thinks Globally, Acts Locally

Plastic Energy Ltd. is a startup in the chemical recycling space with big ambitions. Its stated mission is to be the “world’s leading sustainable and profitable producer of synthetic second-generation fuels and feedstocks for new plastics derived from end-of-life materials.” The company’s UK-based technology specialists have more than 10 years of experience developing the proprietary Thermal Anaerobic Technology (TAC) chemical recycling process, and the firm operates two industrial plants in Almeria and Seville, Spain. If all goes according to plan, Plastic Energy Ltd. will expand its reach into other parts of Europe, North and South America, and Asia-Pacific in fairly short order. We recently asked Carlos Monreal, founder and CEO, some questions about the technology and his company's ambitions via e-mail. Here is what he had to say.

Chemical recycling is not a new technology, per se, but it has garnered considerable interest in the past few years. To what do you attribute that? What are the advantages compared with other forms of dealing with plastic waste?

Carlos Monreal, founder andCEO, Plastic Energy.

Monreal: The technology, indeed, is not new, but it has evolved and improved, as much in the quality of the recycled oil output that can sometimes be used as a new feedstock to make virgin-quality plastic, as well as in its energy use. It also has often been seen as a direct competitor to mechanical recycling or waste-to-energy. The focus on a circular economy and the growing pressure to reach high recycling targets for plastics has led companies to find solutions for all plastics to complement mechanical recycling.

Plastic Energy’s concept of chemical recycling is targeted toward “end-of-life plastic” that can’t be mechanically recycled. This is a result both of the current technical limitations of mechanical recycling, including the number of times plastics can be mechanically recycled, and the quality of recyclate it produces, which often is not suitable for food-grade applications. End-of-life plastics are plastics that are mixed, contaminated, multi-layered, as well as plastics that can no longer be mechanically recycled. So, chemical recycling can complement mechanical recycling by diverting plastic waste from landfill or incineration, creating a full circular economy of plastics. This ability to use both methods as a solution is now gaining credence.  

The interest in this recycling method has also led to a gradual demystification of the process, often misunderstood in the past and conflated with waste-to-energy. Chemical recycling, in reality, melts the plastic waste in an oxygen-free environment. It upgrades the plastic through its conversion into the original monomers in each process of recycling, making it infinitely safe and reusable as a food-grade product. Chemical recycling does not discharge dioxins nor create residual toxic waste, and it directly contributes to the improvement of recycling, to the ability to put recycled content in food-grade applications, to improving waste management, and to decarbonize the economy.

So, the message about the importance of chemical recycling is getting through which is why it is being increasingly supported by businesses and governments.

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What differentiates your Thermal Anaerobic Technology from other chemical recycling methods?

Monreal: Thermal Anaerobic Technology (TAC) is a patented technology that tackles plastic waste pollution by converting end-of-life waste destined for landfill or incineration, or that ends up in our oceans, into hydrocarbon oil, called Tacoil. Tacoil can be used as a feedstock to create virgin-like recycled plastics (closed-loop Plastic2Plastic).

Two factors make it different from other technologies. First, we have developed TAC technology over more than 10 years and have worked closely with the petrochemical industry to ensure that our Tacoil specifications suit their systems and that it can effectively replace fossil-based oils. This experience with our proven technology enables us to produce a stable and optimal output — essential to our partners — which requires a very fine understanding of the feedstock. We have ensured that there is a demand for our recycled oils that can contribute to the circular economy.

Second, we have accumulated three years’ experience in running two commercial plants in the south of Spain. The operational experience of starting to run 250 days per year and then 330 days per year has been key to improving the technology, refining the system, and upscaling. We now run the plant 24/7, 330 days/year with scheduled maintenance periods. Most competitors are still at the lab or pilot stage.

Plastic Energy currently operates chemical recycling plants in Almeria and Seville, Spain. It expects to have 20 plants up and running in Europe, Asia and the Americas by 2025.

This has enabled us to sign MoUs with large chemical and petrochemical companies in Europe and elsewhere for large-scale projects. The strong interest we have received from these companies is further validation that our product responds to their needs. We have also validated the circularity of the polymers with the whole value chain and have, for the first time, made the conversion of end-of-life plastics into recycled plastics a reality. We believe Plastic Energy is the only company in the world that is commercially converting mixed-waste, post-consumer plastics.

Does your technology have any limitations in terms of the materials that can be processed?

Monreal: Our main source is post-consumer plastic waste. This is the most complicated source of plastic to address, as it usually has contaminants, is often mixed with other materials and organics. We treat what we call end-of-life plastics that are contaminated, mixed, and multi-layered, composed mainly of LDPE, HDPE, PP as well as some PS. We do not treat plastics that can be easily mechanically recycled such as PET — they attract a high trading price. Industrial plastics are easier to handle and usually are mechanically recycled due to more single stream and higher volumes. We allow a controlled amount of contamination into the system, as these plastics are normally contaminated with other materials (paper, wood, metals, and so forth), other waste, and food-containing products. PET and PVC are not desirable for our process and are removed.

Some say that the cost of chemical recycling is prohibitive, requiring big, expensive plants, compared with other methods. What is your response?

Monreal: Our business model is flexible and our industrial plants are modular, so we can build according to the requests of the customer.

To give you some examples: We recently signed an agreement with world-leading chemical processing company Sabic to build a large-scale chemical recycling plant designed to create the optimal output to feed its industrial plants and create clean, recycled plastic out of end-of-life plastic waste. It made us a frontrunner in validating the circular economy of end-of-life plastics and what we call the Plastic2Plastic process.

The technology converts end-of-life plastic waste into Tacoil, which can serve as feedstock to create virgin-like recycled plastics.

We have also reached an agreement with the province of West Java (Indonesia) to build five chemical recycling plants. The MOU signed by the Governor of West Java, Ridwan Kamil, complies with campaigns — including the United Nations Clean Seas, Global Plastic Action Partnership, and Our Ocean Conference — to reduce plastic pollution and, in particular, prevent plastics from reaching the ocean around Indonesia, a country that is second only to China for releasing plastic into the sea.

The waste management industry in Indonesia is still in its early stages of development; as such, infrastructure development faces a range of challenges. We are exploring partnerships with a range of public and private sector organizations to address these challenges and facilitate the construction of these plants to make West Java a showcase for the rest of Indonesia.

In a different development, our plant under construction in Tenerife will act as a model for other islands that want to solve their plastic waste problem.

Next-generation plants will be able to process between 20,000 and 30,000 metric tons per year, but we are also exploring the opportunity to develop much larger plants that can process up to 200,000 metric tons per year. Our modular design results in a plant that adapts to the amount of plastic waste that will be processed and to local conditions. As you can see, we can adapt to circumstances in developing and developed markets as well as for the final product tailored to our partners’ facilities and needs.

Our process is a perfect example of the deployment of the circular economy. We offer a global and sustainable solution to help prevent plastic pollution, by transforming previously non-recyclable plastic waste into a valuable resource.

What is in the pipeline for your company in the near future?

Monreal: In the medium term, we have ambitious plans to expand our operations in Europe and develop new plants in Asia and the United States. We are expecting to have 20 chemical recycling plants by 2025 — 10 plants in Europe and 10 plants in Asia and North America. We plan to have our first large-scale chemical recycling plant operational in the Netherlands by the end of 2021.

In terms of the near future, we expect more projects and partnerships to be announced globally.

In the meantime, we aim to continue to prove and validate with the whole value-chain the full circular economy for plastics, following the original validation and certification of the Plastic2Plastic process at Davos 2019, with the certified circular polymers of Sabic made from our Tacoil and used in Unilever’s food-grade packaging.

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 30 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree.


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