Towards a responsible, circular value chain in plastics

We live in a ‘plastic age’ where society thrives thanks to developments in polymer science and technology. At the downside, plastic litter can be found all around the globe. As a society, we need to rethink plastic. It is too valuable to be treated as waste. And it can serve as the feedstock for circularity. This calls for concerted action, in particular, to tackle plastic waste and ensure its recycling.

The mission of the Circular Plastics Initiative is to boost circularity in plastics on an industrial scale. We address the entire value chain from an international perspective and focus on the technological, logistic, and societal challenges lying ahead. The initiative is co-founded by DPI and ISPT.

Efforts to reduce the use of plastics will contribute to solving its associated problems. However, for many purposes plastics offer advantages to other materials. They often combine high performance with reduced weight and thus help reduce the use of energy. It is therefore equally important to develop a strategy for their responsible use. Circularity will have to be at the heart of this strategy.

At the Circular Plastics Initiative, we work towards a fully circular value chain, from production and use via collecting and sorting towards re-use and recycling. This is done in a concerted action involving all relevant players and addressing all relevant issues. The focus will be in particular on plastics used in food packaging, as these confront us with the most pressing problems. They are prone to irresponsible disposal, they are difficult to sort and it’s quite a challenge to bring them back to the beginning of the value chain. Achieving circularity in plastics for food packaging will therefore lead the way to achieving plastics circularity in general.

Mixed Plastic Waste

Recycling plastics for circularity implies rejuvenating the plastic and obtaining fully performant virgin material. In mechanical recycling (sorting, washing, and shredding) the polymer is retained and regranulated, with optional removal of colourants, fillers, plasticizers and other additives. In chemical recycling, the polymer is broken down into its monomers (or beyond) and resynthesized in a chemical ‘bottom-up’ fashion.

In the projects of the Circular Plastics Initiative, the focus now is on the post-consumer Mixed Plastic Waste (MPW) which is the larger fraction of the plastic waste problem and which in its turn is dominated by single-use packaging plastics. It is rich in polyolefins (PE, PP) but also contains other polymers such as PET, PS, minor amounts of other plastics, and non-plastic materials (e.g. paper, textile, and inorganics). Because of the heterogeneity and contamination of MPW, fully mechanical recycling is impossible and chemical recycling is very challenging. A better understanding of chemical recycling (both in materials and process aspects) is imperative for achieving meaningful progress in closing the recycling circle.

Large-scale technology

As polyolefines (PE, PP) constitute the lion’s share of the MPW stream, these will be the primary target of the ‘chemcycling’ efforts of the Circular Plastics Initiative. The shear MPW volume implies that closing the loop requires technology that can be operated at a very large scale. Pyrolysis is one of the technology options here, with gasification as a possible alternative. The ultimate aim is to provide a feed for the steam crackers in existing plastic production plants.

The Circular Plastics Initiative projects will focus on:

  • Analysis of the composition of the mixed plastic waste stream and of contaminants therein;
  • Evaluation of sorting technology;
  • Evaluation for chemical processing (pyrolysis & gasification) in terms of quality and scalability (beyond 100 kt/a);
  • Evaluation of the opportunities and pitfalls in using the pyrolysis oil as feed for plastic production.

Projects across the value chain

In all efforts of the Circular Plastics Initiative, the approach is to establish projects across the whole value chain and bring together all relevant parties, in particular brand owners, waste management and recycling companies, and the chemical industry. The initative also highly values input from NGOs concerned about plastic waste issues.

An important issue will be packaging redesign: exploring the opportunities and restrictions in optimizing plastic packaging for cost-effective mechanical as well as chemical recycling, while retaining optimal packaging performance and customer experience.

Projects are planned and carried out in close collaboration with the Institute for Sustainable Process Technology (ISPT), the leading institute for open innovation in the process industry.

Current projects

Join the cluster
The Circular Plastics Initiative is open for more participants. Would you like to join the cluster or need more information, please contact the cluster using the contact form.