Towards Smart Recycling for a Healthier Ecosystem

Towards Smart Recycling for a Healthier Ecosystem

Ricardo Cuetos, VP Standard Products, INEOS Styrolution

Ricardo Cuetos, VP Standard Products, INEOS Styrolution

Plastics play a fundamental role in modern life. They have transformed many of the applications in which they are used–for the better. The past year, in particular, has made it abundantly clear to more members of society how critical of a role plastics play in protecting against sterilization hazards in both food and medical applications.

Indeed, these are valuable materials, and all members of the value chain can benefit from recovering and recycling plastics for reuse. However, there is no ‘silver bullet’ solution to this multifaceted topic. Below, w will explore the values and challenges of a circular economy utilizing both mechanical and advanced recycling methods.

"The progress in recyclability of plastics such as polystyrene means the benefits of the material (lightweight, insulating, hygienic, and more) can continue to be utilized while contributing to the vision of a sustainable, circular economy"

The Goal of Creating a Truly Circular Economy for Plastics:

Instead of sending plastic products to a landfill after a single use, closing the loop is a tangible solution for developing a circular economy for plastics: collect plastic waste, sort it, recycle this valuable resource, and use it again as a raw material to produce those same products or new products, again and again.

People generally think of ‘recycling’ as one blanketed technology. However, there are actually many different forms of technologies available in today’s modern recycling landscape. For example, when utilizing advanced recycling, a polystyrene foam coffee cup could be repurposed back into another cup or a safe container for a life-saving vaccine–a critical use case for our existing environment.

Polystyrene can be recycled using mechanical recycling techniques, as has been done for decades. However, new advanced recycling technologies have made it possible for polystyrene to become a closed-loop product. Its unique chemical structure allows it to be broken down easily and recreated into new polymers with exactly the same high quality and performance as before and with no down-cycling. It is a process that can be repeated again.

The ability to recycle a material over and over using advanced recycling technologies is unlike traditional recycling methods, where any polymer type gets degraded each time it goes through the cycle. Traditional recycling involves shredding, melting, and re-forming materials into pellets. The heating and melting process alters the polymers’ molecular chains. And after a few rounds of this, the material properties change enough to limit the recycled material’s ability to make products. Because of this, the recycled plastic must be supplemented with virgin materials, preventing a closed loop for the material and limiting the ability to create a truly circular economy.

The Benefits of a Circular Economy Across Numerous Industries:

The progress in recyclability of plastics such as polystyrene means the benefits of the material (lightweight, insulating, hygienic, and more) can continue to be utilized while contributing to the vision of a sustainable, circular economy. Advanced recycling processes such as depolymerization are shown to be less energy-intensive and have a much lower carbon footprint as compared to conventional production processes, and will reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills or incinerated.

In fact, a new report just released by Oregon-based sustainability firm Good Company for the American Chemistry Council finds emissions from advanced recycling pyrolysis technologies to be very low when compared with other common facilities.

Polystyrene made from depolymerization recycling processes can be utilized in any of the critical industries that currently use virgin polystyrene material. Many of these applications would not be able to perform their given function using an alternative material. From life-saving medical applications, electronics, food service, and energy-efficient insulation, traditional recycling would not yield a product pure enough for use in these categories, and the material would likely have to be down-cycled.

The Challenges Facing This Goal:

Right now, there are limits to the feasibility of recycling all plastics, not only polystyrene. The existing capacity of today’s recycling facilities simply cannot meet the ambitious recycling content commitments and recovery goals currently endorsed by some brand owners and environmental groups.

There is a significant amount of variation seen across recycling programs within the United States, including what recyclers will accept and process. A material like polystyrene can be recycled with traditional mechanical recycling methods, although it is not always collected. This is a reflection of the current outdated recycling collection and sorting infrastructure as opposed to polystyrene’s technical capability to be recycled.

As a country, we must invest in modern infrastructure and increase our recycling facilities’ capacity to meet the material processing demands of today. Over the past several years, there have been great advancements and innovations in recycling technologies. We must not continue to rely on decades-old technology for a better future. Let us use the science of today to create a circular economy for plastics and an infinitely better tomorrow

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