The new life of hard-to-recycle plastics

Only one third of the produced plastics can be recycled every year. The rest is often considered as too hard to recycle. But nevertheless it plays a major role in many important sectors of the printing industry, for example the packaging production. A few innovative groups of scientists have just searched for a way, which is tackling exactly that challenge of hard-to-recycle plastic.

In the printing industry and its related industries such as the packaging production segment, the advantages and disadvantages of plastics have long been known. A major point of criticism is often the issue of waste, but this is nor the real problem. The problem is that it has not been possible to recycle and reuse certain types of plastic and this has slowed down the transition to a closed-loop economy.

There are a few different types of plastic waste that we are currently not able to recycle, such as single-use food packaging, fibre-reinforced car parts and mattress foam.
But just recently several groups of scientists have been working on new recycling technologies to not only make all kinds of plastics recyclable, but also make them usable and as good as new.

Why Plastic Recycling is Sometimes Diffucult

60 mio. tons of plastics are produced per year worldwide. But only 30% of it gets recycled. The other 70% are ending up at landfills and in our environment. That makes plastic waste to one of our leading environmental concerns. But why is the recycling rate of plastics so small? The reason is that most products made of plastic contain different plastics. The example of food packaging illustrates that very well. Especially fresh food such as meat or dairy products often needs to be protected by various layers such as lids, films or trays. But different plastics need to be separated before processing – and that is very time consuming and costing. So in the end these products mostly don’t get recycled due to several reasons.

New Recycling Technologies as the Solution?

This is why new project named MultiCycle has brought up a team lead by Dr. Elodie Bugnicurt from Barcelona, Spain, is aiming to scale up a patented process named CreaSolv. This process is supposed to give multi layered packaging a new life. The formula is solvent based, so the different types of plastics and fibers are extracted by dissolving them in a solution. After that the polymers are recovered from the solution in a slid form and reshaped. Usually the plastic degrades when processing it, but that is not the case with CreaSolv, as the final recycled plastic is of high quality and the process is more efficient. “The key is to recover polymers instead of monomers, so you don’t have to use energy for polymerizing it again.”, said Dr. Bugnicurt. But still, the main challenge is to process waste made up complex mixtures of plastics. But the team members also have developed a tool to monitor the composition of plastic waste, in order to optimize the recycling process, which is a much more sustainable solution.

Overcoming Technological Boundaries

In most cases technological boundaries are responsible for plastics not getting recycled. One new project searching for ways to boost the recovery rate of hard-to-recycle plastics is the POLYNSPIRE project. The team is convinced that recycling not only needs to be improved, but also certainly can be improved to boost the quality of the recycled plastic. Therefore, they focus on two main technologies: Adding vitrimers and incorporating high-energy irradiation. Both aim to increase the resistance of recycled materials. So far the proposed technologies are tested in the lab, while the team is working on the pre-treatment and purification stages of recycling. The next step will be to show that the recycled material is just as good and reliable as the virgin material.

 

What do you think of these approaches and the need to find a new solution to establish a circular economy? Tell us your thoughts in the comment section!