As the Basal Convention Clamps Down on Exports the West Must Recycle More Plastics

BLOG: Can Chemical Recycling Solve the Plastic Waste Crisis?

Carlos Monreal, CEO of PLASTIC ENERGY, explains that with the changes to the Basel Convention restricting shipments of hard-to-recycle waste to poorer countries, waste exporters have to find a way to recycle to face their responsibilities…

Carlos Monreal, CEO of PLASTIC ENERGY, explains that with the changes to the Basel Convention restricting shipments of hard-to-recycle waste to poorer countries, waste exporters have to find a way to recycle to face their responsibilities…

At the moment, higher income countries have not developed the necessary infrastructure to deal with their own waste and have preferred exporting waste than keeping up with innovations in the field of recycling that could address this exported waste. In these conditions, naturally, the policies and regulation in place are behind the curve.

We need some radical changes to drive a truly circular economy but the onus is now on the recyclers to show the way supported by government, regulators and the whole value chain.

When end-of-life plastic waste can be converted into something of value to be used over and over again there is little logic in burying, burning or exporting it to developing countries which only creates more pollution on a planet that has suffered enough – and it actually even goes against the Waste Hierarchy established by the EU

We need to deal with our own end-of-life plastic and one of the obvious solutions is to adopt chemical recycling which produces high-quality output over and over again, enabling the creation of virgin quality recycled plastics.

An example of how this might work is PLASTIC ENERGY’S agreement with SABIC, a diversified chemicals company headquartered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where ‘certified circular polymers’ will be produced from TACOIL.

TACOIL is formed through a Thermal Anaerobic Conversion (TAC) recycling process for low quality, mixed plastic waste otherwise destined for incineration or landfill. The process is designed to convert end-of-life plastic waste into a new feedstock to create clean recycled plastics or alternative low-carbon fuels. For every tonne of end-of-life plastic waste processed, 850 litres of the TACOIL chemical feedstock is produced.

SABIC will process the TACOIL and the “certified circular polymers” granulates will then be supplied to key customers to use in their development of pioneering, high quality and consumer-safe products. For instance, Tupperware Brands Corp. will use the "certified circular polymers" to make two products to help reduce the use of single-use plastic — including a reusable straw and coffee cup.

So, if this new type of recycling continues to develop to addressr end-of-life plastics, along with the mechanical recycling industry, we can start to make a real impact on the waste pollution problem and bring economic benefits too.    

But changes need to be made – and fast. The current waste management system makes it very difficult for companies offering better solutions to get access to waste plastic landfilled, incinerated, or exported.

There is no quick and easy fix, as this will entail overturning long-standing working practices and agreements. Introducing new ways of dealing with waste will, however, lead to higher recycling rates, better waste management practices, and a significant reduction of the pollution.

There also needs to be swift action by governments and regulators. Because we are a relatively new industry, the categorization of our activity remains unclear. Until now it has by default been categorized as energy recovery in the EU Waste Hierarchy, but we are now working on making chemical recycling count in recycling - the Netherlands has already taken some steps towards this recognition and support of the industry.

What’s needed is harmonisation of regulations on chemical recycling across European countries as well as harmonized collection and segregation systems, but also efficient systems to secure the required feedstock.

At the beginning of this year the Chemical Recycling Europe association was set up in Brussels. It has been established because the targets set up in the EU plastic recycling strategy (10 million tonnes) will not be achievable without implementing chemical recycling and because chemical recycling allows the use of wider feedstock.

There are other powerful reasons. Chemical recycling is a complementary solution to overcome the current challenges of mechanical processes and to increase overall recycling rates. The fact is that the quality of the recycled materials is not sufficient to replace virgin plastic on a large scale, especially for food-grade packaging. 

There are many challenges ahead but once the environmental and economic benefits of recycling are fully understood – and sufficient investment is made to establish the infrastructure needed for a more local approach to the plastic waste problem – we are confident that recycling rates will dramatically improve.  

A movement is growing to change our approach to plastic waste. There is now a growing recognition that chemical recycling is part of the solution to reduce plastic pollution and to contribute to the creation of a circular economy of plastics.

Carlos Monreal is founder and CEO, PLASTIC ENERGY which is rolling out a chemical recycling technology that converts end-of-life plastic into a hydrocarbon feedstock that can be used to create new plastics– or plastic2plastic as the company calls it.

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