BASF, one of the world’s leading chemical manufacturers and most respected organizations in this business, is pioneering a unique concept in the recycling of plastic waste. It has created and launched an initiative called ChemCycling Project that focuses on chemically recycling plastics using thermo-chemical processes to find ways of reusing/recycling plastic waste that are difficult to regenerate into discrete plastics for re-use (like multi-layered plastic structures, mixed plastic waste, unclean or non-sorted post-consumer waste, waste with residues including food residues that are difficult to remove or unhygienic). No viable solutions are currently available to recycle these materials and they are mostly consigned to landfills or incinerators.
ChemCycling uses and builds on the concept that waste materials that cannot be mechanically recycled (mechanical recycling requires safe and pure waste materials which are available via collection and/or sorting in commercial quantities) into basic polymers can be chemically broken down into gaseous products that can be used as building blocks for manufacturing new plastics or industrial chemicals/intermediates and into pyrolysis oils that can replace fossil fuels. These gases or pyrolysis oils can be used as fossil feedstock or as raw materials, thus conserving prime non-renewable scarce fossil resources.
The following schematic explains the chemical recycling concept:
During the chemical recycling process, the waste plastic is treated at very high temperatures and broken down into syngas (synthesis gas) or pyrolysis oils. The syngas can be used to produce synthetic natural gas or other chemicals including a petroleum-like material that can be used as fuel or lubricant. The input plastic waste for this process can be even unsorted or mixed plastics or plastics contaminated with residues like food residues. In October this year, during the first phase of innovation, BASF fed oils supplied by Recenso (the company’s technology partner that supplies the feedstock for the pilot production processes) into the steam cracker at its Ludwigshafen plant and the resulting products obtained were ethylene and propylene, which can be used to manufacture a wide variety of chemicals including polymers like polyethylene and polypropylene. BASF is now working on commercializing these processes and products.
If BASF is able to convert its pilot trials into commercially viable processes, this will be a ground-breaking innovation that can make the recycling of mixed plastic waste, unsorted plastic waste and residue-contaminated waste into new chemicals and intermediates possible. This will go a long way towards making plastic waste perpetually recyclable into equivalent applications or even upcycling them and thus enabling a circular economy – at least in the plastic realm.