Advanced Plastic Recycling

Alessia Gaspodini   ·   Jun 22 2022

The United Nations warns that among all the billion tons of plastic that have been produced in the past 50 years only 9% have been recycled. Where did the rest go?

Unfortunately, there are now 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans, covering almost 40% of their surface. With this being one of the most important challenges to face nowadays, businesses are investing in advanced recycling technologies (also called chemical recycling) that turn used plastics into new products that can be recycled multiple times. This accelerates the transition to a circular economy, cleaning the environment of tons of plastic waste for future generations.


The biodegradable plastic that can degrade in two years in a compost bin
Researchers at Kaunas University of Technology in Lithuania, Faculty of Chemical Technology, have developed a cellulose-based biodegradable, transparent plastic for food packaging that can decompose within a compost bin in just a few years.

“We are used to get sandwiches, snacks, pastries, sweets and many other products in a paper bag with a plastic window. With a clear window on the front face, the products in the bag can be viewed easily. Although paper is biologically degradable, it is complicated to separate paper from plastic, and the package is considered non-recyclable and non-compostable. However, if we made the window from biodegradable plastic, it could be composted. Moreover, we could even use the bag for collecting biodegradable waste and put all into the compost bin together”, says project coordinator Dr Paulius Pavelas Danilovas.

The EU-funded MultiCycle project
The EU-funded MultiCycle project is developing an industrial recycling pilot plant that dissolves individual plastics from a multi-material feedstock using reusable solvents. "These are then recovered as solid recycled material suitable for making new, value-adding plastic products," adds Ana Maria Lopez from IRIS Technology Solutions in Spain, who is in charge of the project. The project is currently one of the most significant contributions to a European circular economy, which will aid in the support of a more environmentally friendly future lifestyle.

An enzyme able to consume PET (polyethylene terephthalate)
Texas, 2022: using machine learning, scientists are developing an enzyme able to digest polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the plastic used in single-use bottles, veggie packaging, and in some textiles, which accounts for 12% of all worldwide garbage. The enzyme is responsible both for depolymerization and repolymerization (meaning fragmenting the plastic and assembling it together) in less than 24 hours, normally.

“This work really demonstrates the power of bringing together different disciplines, from synthetic biology to chemical engineering to artificial intelligence,” said team leader Andrew Ellington, professor at the Centre for Systems and Synthetic Biology.

The machine that turns recycled plastic into oil
In Swindon, southwest England, researchers at Recycling Technologies are using pyrolysis (the technology that heats organic materials without oxygen) to produce gas and oil from recycled plastics. The oil can then be sold to be used as fuel or to make more plastic again. Adrian Griffiths, the UK company's CEO, hopes to sell this product soon all over the world.

What’s happening worldwide

The next-generation road
VolkerWessels UK, one of the world's leaders in the civil engineering and construction industry, launched the PlasticRoad project to make roads sustainable, clean our environment, and boost the circular economy. PlasticRoad is indeed more durable than conventional roads, 100% recyclable, and quicker to install (the first one was installed in 2018 in the Netherlands using 218,000 plastic cups, and it’s today a 30-metre bicycle path).

Houses made of plastic waste
Builders in Canada are converting plastic into foam that hardens when cooled (and thus can be used to construct walls). Joel German and David Saulnier built a three-bedroom house in Nova Scotia using 600,00 plastic water bottles.

Lush is using PCR plastic in its packaging for the first time
The British cosmetics retailer Lush has been recognized by The Association of Plastics Recyclers for the first sustainable PCR packaging ever in the make-up world. The Lush Black Pot packages for cream and lotion are indeed entirely made of PCR (Post-Consumer Recycled) material (KWR621FDA and KWR621FDA-20 resins).

Adidas shoes made of recycled ocean plastic
As part of the Circular Loop production process, Adidas is creating shoes made of recycled ocean plastic, embracing the concept of Made To Be Remade (MTBR) to help reduce plastic waste in our oceans.

Colgate made a recyclable toothpaste tube
At the beginning of this year, Colgate released its green toothpaste tube made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), the material normally used for milk bottles. The goal is to increase brand awareness and “make toothpaste tubes a part of the circular economy”.

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Advanced recycling technologies are one of the key players that facilitate the implementation of the circular economy and are indeed one of the recent challenges at MCAM Growth Garage, the business accelerator program from our customer Mitsubishi Chemical Advanced Materials (MCAM). The winner of this year's Recycling Technology competition is Osayuki Osazuwa, from Jeosal Materials Research Corporation, Canada, who proposed a sustainable method of recycling and reusing fiber-reinforced plastics (FRP) derived from end-of-life (EoL) material and production wastes. (More information here)

The circular economy plays a key role in sustainable development, as it helps to address global issues such as climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss. Here are, according to our InnovationGraph, the top categories related to circularity and the recycling industry to keep an eye on and accelerate this transition to a more environmentally friendly lifestyle:

Visual Explorer (13)

However, things have gotten worse in the past few years. According to the Circularity Gap Report 2022, the global economy is only 8.6% circular (it was 12.8% 2 years ago before the pandemic). Indeed, only 20% of the world's waste, worth USD 63 billion per year, is collected and recycled under proper conditions; if this were increased, it would create 18 million green jobs by 2030.

“We must transform every element of our take-make-waste system: how we manage resources, how we make and use products, and what we do with the materials afterwards.” - Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the charity committed to building a regenerative, restorative economy.