By CSO of Geminor, Ralf Schöpwinkel.
By CSO of Geminor, Ralf Schöpwinkel.

These factors must be met if our plastic is to become circular

October 27, 2022
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If we are to solve our global environmental challenges, the vast majority of our plastic must become circular as quickly as possible. Better sorting, more downstream industry players, and more chemical recycling are some of the most important factors, says Geminor CSO, Ralf Schöpwinkel.

Worldwide, 350 million tonnes of plastics are produced annually, and the tonnage is growing. Just seven percent of this plastic is recycled today.

In order to deal with the significant challenge posed by plastics today, we will have to utilize the waste plastic resources we have available. One of our main challenges is that a significant proportion of the waste plastic still cannot be materially recycled. There are various reasons for this, but the following factors will be important to be able to develop an effective circularity that includes as much of our plastic material as possible.

  1. More knowledge of recycling plastics

It is a fact that in 2022 there is too little knowledge about waste plastic in both Norway and the EU. This applies to large parts of the value chain, from collection, sorting and cleaning to the development of raw materials such as granules and the production of new plastic products.

Increasing knowledge about plastic qualities is also important to ensure larger volumes of "correct" plastic for material recycling - whether it goes to mechanical or chemical final processing. Greater understanding of the value of plastic in the circular economy can also increase reuse and reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in nature.

Chemical recycling of plastics is a focus area for Geminor.
  1. More downstream solutions and greater processing capacity

Unfortunately, it is of little help to talk about plastic recycling if we do not have enough industry players who can carry out the task. Several countries in Europe lack sufficient downstream solutions for processing and facilitating the recycling of plastics. Far more players need to be involved to ensure recycling of the huge and ever-growing quantities of plastic we produce today.

  1. Establishment of chemical recycling

Today, mechanical recycling of hard plastic is the most significant and widespread material recycling of plastic worldwide. But in order to speed up the recycling of plastics, we must also ensure that chemical recycling is industrialized as quickly as possible. Over time, pyrolysis can become a very important contribution, which at the same time leads to less and less plastic going to landfill or being burned in energy recovery facilities.

In practice, chemical recycling of plastic leads to so-called "upcycling": In this process, the plastic is returned to its molecular origin and can thus be used to produce new plastic with the same quality as virgin plastic. Thus, it can also be used for, among other things, food packaging.

Chemical recycling also enables the reuse of complex plastic waste that cannot be used for mechanical recycling, while at the same time that the recycling provides a higher recovery rate than mechanical recycling.

Chemical recycling is on the rise in Europe, with many tens of new pyrolysis plants being planned or developed. In the USA, too, we see larger players coming on the scene, such as Cyclyx International, ExxonMobil and LyondellBasell.

Chemical recycling of plastics through pyrolysis creates oils that can be used for the production of new plastics.

But we still have a long way to go before we have a well-functioning international ecosystem for the chemical recycling of plastics. Everything from large capital requirements to strict requirements for plastic quality contribute to making the process both complicated and time-consuming. In order to speed up the chemical recycling of plastics in the EU, it is also important that the process is recognized as material recycling by all countries in Europe.

  1. Predictable and stable market for material recycling of plastic

Any new industry gets off its feet faster if market forces work together, which is also the case for material recycling of plastics. Because although a market can be manipulated with incentives or regulations, one is also at the mercy of economic circumstances that create good conditions for growth. The turbulent times we live in, with huge energy costs, short-term inflation and signs of recession with less access to waste plastic, could make it cheaper to produce virgin plastic while demand for recycled material is falling.

Mechanical recycling of plastic at Quantafuel.

If we are to succeed in creating significant chemical material recycling of plastic, the requirements for circularity should be followed up with arrangements for both more investment and better flow of plastic between the countries. Various national incineration taxes, as well as subjecting waste incineration to the EU's quota system ETS - which is planned to be introduced throughout the EU in 2026 - will be incentives to separate out more plastic for material recycling. Costs for CO2 allowances have doubled in the last two years and are expected to rise further in the future. But these are just some of the many measures that the actors have to deal with and that can make a difference.

The market for plastic material recycling is best served with good predictability and good future prospects. A joint effort from both private actors and authorities is needed to create a well-functioning ecosystem for plastic recycling.

Geminor, for its part, will increase its focus on sorting out plastic from residual waste, in order to redirect more of the plastic towards material recycling. Thus, waste incineration plants can also be offered a waste fuel with a higher biogenic share - so-called BioRDF.