“Chemical recycling is a reality in the PET industry”

by Stephen A. Short, President at Petcore Europe

Petcore Europe is a Trade Association registered in Brussels, Belgium, and supports the value chain of the PET resin sector. Petcore is an active participant in the Circular Plastics Alliance sponsored by the European Commission to increase the recycling of plastic and create a circular business model by increasing the recycle content of plastics entering the market. To achieve this both aspects of mechanical and chemical recycling are evaluated to ensure end of waste criteria recognise the value of collected waste as a supply chain for reprocessed products.

This article is related to PET resin as Petcore’s business focus, whilst recognising there is a wider picture for the total plastic sector. This article focuses on the chemical recycling of PET, a process known as depolymerisation. Mechanical recycling of PET has been commercially available for more than 25 years and continues to be a developing sector. Today chemical recycling is attracting attention by groups interested in the scientific and public area (NGO) seeking to understand the prospects and impact the process has on both the environment and overall sustainability of polymers.

Petcore has a specialist working group established to work on common issues and inform the political, regulatory, and public interest whilst gaining an understanding of the chemical recycling of PET.

Chemical recycling – Depolymerisation of PET to monomers – Basics

To meet requirements both from political directives and public demand, both chemical and mechanical recycling of PET must grow. With a regulatory target of 30% recycled content for beverage bottles by 2030, the ability of the PET industry to achieve this requires significant innovation and investment. Chemical recycling is required along with mechanical, to displace non-sustainable fossil feedstock monomers in the virgin sector of the business and bringing rejuvenation to the resin. Mechanical recycling cannot be the only supply as the performance of the higher percentage mechanically recycled product decreases over time. A synergistic balance of both processes brings the total performance.

The chemical industry is highly regulated to ensure that occupational health, environmental impact, input and output product safety and other targets are met to provide a “licence to operate”.

There are several processes of chemical recycling which are in development today. To depolymerise PET back to its components, the standards for operating a chemical plant must be met. We support the request by NGO’s for the legislators to scrutinise these developments to ensure they meet the required standards. The industry wishes to comply with reaching the targets, safely and with reduced impact on the environment. This is true of not only in the product but also the whole value chain.

However, the balance between negative reinforcement such as plastic tax and/or total ban on plastic products and the ability to have investment in the right innovation, plant and production must be considered to ensure that chemical recycling develops into a sustainable industry meeting the need for the circular economy. This is related to waste management development given that the apparent directive is a reduction in waste, rather than focusing on turning the waste industry into a feedstock sector. If the “end of waste “objective is common for both public and industry turning waste into a valued feedstock the circular economy will blossom and grow.

Chemical recycling – Depolymerisation of PET to monomers – Path forward

The observations and critique by the NGO’s and scientific studies that raised concern over the suitability and overstated claims by industry referencing chemical recycling is worthy of consideration. It is a common fact that the main objectives of chemical recycling require proven facts. Only by driving innovation can we test these objectives, develop the facts, and prove the concept. It is during the initial phase that most innovative ideas die a death as investment is required without guarantee of pay back.

As the value chain for PET, the sector clearly understands there are unknowns which can only be removed by laboratory testing, through a pilot plant, then scale-up to demonstration. Typically, it takes years to go through this process during which failures can and do occur.

Chemical recycling is a reality in the PET industry. Today, mechanically recycled flake that has EFSA opinion for safe use as food contact material, is injected into the primary reactor of the virgin PET plant. Using excess glycol (monomer) the melted flake is mixed with the traditional virgin pre-polymer starting materials. The flake breaks down to lower molecular weight oligomers and then re-combines with the starting materials to give a homogeneous low polymer that goes further through the process to produce the final PET resin. The process is limited to the percentage of recycled flake can be mixed with virgin feedstock.

Through its working group, Petcore is developing studies to present data on the enhanced chemical recycling processes, where collected post-consumer PET from the market is depolymerised to starting materials, purified terephthalic acid (PTA) and mono-ethylene glycol (MEG) which can be used for making new polymers. Pilot plants have already given proof of concept, and demonstration plants are in construction and commissioning to exhibit scale up of operations.

What is clear is that PET collected from the market is being re-used to create PET/polyester for the same end use giving a physically evident circular business model with recycled content in product placed on the market.

Chemical recycling – Depolymerisation of PET to monomers – Claims and concerns

Several scientific papers and NGO reports are expressing concerns that chemical recycling is overstating claims of lower GHG emissions and the improved LCA of recycled materials. Plus, the issue that chemical recycling could be bad for the environment due to by-product waste management.

Petcore supports the fact the any scientific data must be robust and comprehensible. Going back to the “licence to operate”, your sins will find you out if the overstatement of performance does not materialise. Add to this the EU Commission wishes to crack down on “Green Washing” so claims for performance will need to be accurate and auditable.

Petcore agrees LCA analysis can be misinterpreted and can be misleading. The aspect raised in Zero Waste Europe’s Study “Understanding the Environmental Impacts of Chemical Recycling” makes sense to Petcore and we would encourage all NGO’s to work with the industry to bring our collective objectives together.

At the start it was mentioned the value chain for PET wishes to comply with the requirement to address recyclability and increase recycling of PET to bring about a circular business model. In that, the industry wishes to ensure that all aspects of environmental and sustainable production are addressed, auditable and prove that the recycle business is the right alternative for the defined end use.

Petcore encourages NGO’s and scientific researchers to approach us, as we will work with them to ensure the goal to bring circular business to PET is met along with meeting the conditions for a licence to operate.

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