Recyclers’ 'dirty' little secret

SecretWith China rejecting shipments of “dirty” plastic and other recycled materials, it’s time to talk about recycling’s dirty little secret: Recyclers only want "clean” waste! When we think of waste, do we automatically think of dirty trash that is really of no value? Have we given valuable plastic recyclate a bad rap by calling it waste, which makes people more inclined to toss it out in any old condition? People who don’t know plastics don’t understand that recyclers want clean recyclate.  

When you really take a close look at it, to get the desirable plastics required for recycling by the numbers (1 through 7) requires cleaning it through an extensive washing process, which means lots of hot water and chemicals to remove glues and label debris. Using precious resources, such as water and electricity, just doesn’t make good sense. It’s one of those ideas that had good intentions but is not by any means green

An article by Bob Tita, “Recyclers Clean Up Their Waste,” in the June 7 issue of the Wall Street Journal notes that since the Chinese called a halt to dirty recyclate from the U.S., recyclers are trying harder to make their material cleaner through better, albeit more time consuming, methods of sorting materials to remove waste from valuable plastic recyclate. 

Other recycling companies are finding the value in co-mingling plastics and turning them into diesel and petrochemicals through a melting process in “reactors without air,” such as Salt Lake City–based Renewlogy. In December 2017, Renewlogy and Reef Life Restoration entered into a research collaboration to embed difficult-to-recover plastics into marine infrastructure aimed at redeveloping areas around coral reefs. The innovative collaboration is aimed at finding a circular economy solution that addresses both reef destruction and plastic pollution.

Renewlogy has been a technology leader in developing solutions to plastic waste ever since it was founded at MIT in 2011. Through its proprietary chemical recycling process, Renewlogy reverses non-recycled plastic back into its basic molecular structure to create high-value products such as fuel. This new collaboration will allow it to also convert certain non-recycled plastic streams into the building blocks of eco cement, which can be used in Reef Life’s structures, such as living sea walls, category-5 windbreak panels and floating platforms in areas near sculptural dive reefs.

“We are thrilled to partner with Renewlogy and combine our research efforts and embed their plastic research into the nanomaterials research we have done to engineer a future class of marine infrastructure with dual purpose: Waste encapsulation and advanced performance,” said Reef Life’s CEO and founder Melody Saunders Brenna.

Renewlogy’s CEO Priyanka Bakaya commented: “This research represents a significant breakthrough in addressing both plastic pollution as well as marine infrastructure. This is a truly sustainable solution that would allow us to be able to even further broaden the range of plastics we currently process.”

RES Polyflow LLC (Chagrin Falls, OH) expects to convert 100,000 tons of mixed plastic annually into 16 million gallons of diesel and naphtha—a petrochemical used to make new plastic—at a plant opening next year in Ashley, IN,” said Tita in the WSJ article. “Oil Company BP in March agreed to buy products from the plant.” 

Turning the plastics problem into a plastics asset won’t be easy. PlasticsToday asked Michael Dungan, RES Polyflow’s Director of Sales and Marketing, what that challenge might involve. “Education and demonstration is the key,” he said. “Telling the story of energy recovery via plastics-to-fuel is the primary activity of our self-funded trade group, the Plastics-To-Fuel and Petrochemistry Alliance. Consumers, brand owners, packaging companies and waste companies alike find our value proposition to be simple and understandable when it is presented and demonstrated through an operating facility. 

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