Earth Day 2020: Pyrolysis Player Cracks Case of Hard-to-Recycle Waste Plastics

Among plastic waste recycling technologies, pyrolysis could generate one of the biggest profit-pools in terms of growth (25.4%) into the next decade, second only to mechanical recycling (28.3%), according to a McKinsey report, “How Plastics Waste Recycling Could Transform the Chemical Industry.” McKinsey’s analysis suggests that “re-converting waste plastics into cracker feedstocks that could displace naphtha or natural-gas-liquid demand — most likely using a pyrolysis process to do this — may be economically viable, and is more resilient to lower oil prices, remaining stable down to $50 a barrel.”

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Pyrolysis is an invaluable technology for treating mixed polymer streams, which mechanical recycling technologies currently cannot handle, McKinsey noted in its report. “Pyrolysis also is an important back-up process to handle polymers that have exhausted their potential for further mechanical recycling. A number of pyrolysis players are coming forward, offering a range of facilities from large-scale plants with capacities of 30,000 to 100,000 tonnes a year to smaller-scale modular units with capacity up to 3,000 tonnes a year."

Encina Development Group LLC is one of those pyrolysis players. Based in Coral Gables, FL, Encina has been in business for six years and began by using carbon as a primary feedstock.

Pyrolysis is the chemical decomposition of carbon-based materials through the application of heat. Pyrolysis can be done with or without a catalyst. David Schwedel, Encina founder and Executive Director, explained to PlasticsToday that when Encina first started its design process, it wanted to ensure that the end products would be carbon neutral. That can be done by capturing and treating CO2 at the emissions point for further sale or sequestration or by adding diverted waste material from landfill as a blend to the carbon feedstock. This would include items like biomass, municipal solid waste, or waste plastic. Encina’s process, which uses a catalyst, is flexible in that it can take multiple feedstocks and allow the company to change the type of products it makes.

PlasticsToday marks Earth Day’s 50th anniversary April 22 with a series of articles highlighting the real efforts that the plastics industry is taking to mitigate plastic pollution and develop effective and viable sustainable solutions. You can find all of the relevant content by typing “Earth Day 2020” in the search box at the top of the home page.

“When we started to explore manufacturing carbon-neutral products, and pushed through various diverted waste material on the front end, we also processed waste plastic as part of our business model,” said Schwedel. “Not one person on our team at that time had plastics industry expertise, but as we started putting this solid waste into our reactor modeling, we saw a high-yield chemical result that far surpassed the use of traditional carbon feedstocks. That’s when we concluded that there’s a lot of good stuff in waste plastic for us.”

It didn’t take long for the company to pivot the business away from traditional carbon to the use of waste plastics as a primary feedstock for its pyrolysis process to create renewable fuels and renewable chemicals. According to Schwedel, the company can take a variety of waste plastic in almost any condition and, without any major handling, sorting or cleaning, produce high-value base chemicals — benzene, toluene and xylene, or BTX — and renewable fuels via its proprietary technologies. “We did not start our business on the basis of creating a solution for waste plastic, but this is, in fact, where we landed,” Schwedel said.

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