6 industries that chemical recycling is poised to disrupt, Plug and Play

6 industries that chemical recycling is poised to disrupt, Plug and Play

Published: 09-08-2023 13:19:00 | By: Pie Kamau | hits: 5300 | Tags:

Chemical recycling is a process in which waste materials are broken down into their original chemical compounds and reused or repurposed. It's an efficient and sustainable way to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills. Using chemical recycling, valuable materials that have already been used can be recovered for reuse without producing any additional environmental damage.

Unlike mechanical recycling, which can be limited by material quality degradation, chemical recycling is a viable solution to convert waste into usable resources and address the problems caused by increasing waste production. This blog delves into six diverse industries where chemical recycling holds tremendous potential, creating new opportunities for waste management and promoting sustainable practices.

  • Packaging

According to Statista, in recent years, the use of plastics worldwide has increased significantly and is now estimated at 460m metric tons. Packaging is the largest plastics-consuming segment, which comprises approximately 31% of the total.

Chemical recycling has the potential to greatly reduce the amount of plastic waste generated by the packaging industry. The technology can break down single-use packaging materials into valuable monomers and polymers. They can be used to produce new, high-quality packaging materials, reducing the need for virgin plastic production and minimizing plastic waste leakage into the environment.

Biofabrik is a company that develops technologies in green chemicals and waste to energy. One of its technologies, WASTX Plastic, can be applied to food packaging by processing multi-layer films and contaminants such as paper labels and food residues.

Besides food packaging, chemical recycling is gaining traction in beauty and personal care as leading brands are now incorporating recycled material into their packaging. For example, cosmetics companies like KAO, Shiseido, and Amorepacific are all focusing on increasing the use of recycled plastic in their packaging and creating high-quality post-consumer recycled materials through chemical recycling technology.

  • Automotive

Chemical recycling offers benefits to the automotive industry, particularly in managing end-of-life vehicle components. Many vehicle parts are made from materials that are challenging to recycle through traditional methods. These materials include valuable metals, rubber, and interior design materials like plastics, foam, carpeting, and upholstery. They can be broken down through chemical recycling into their original chemical constituents, which can be used to create new automotive materials. 

Many mobility industry players have been embracing chemical recycling to reduce plastic waste. In 2022, Audi partnered with LyondellBasell, a chemical company, to use its plastics in the Audi Q8 e-tron's seatbelt buckle covers. The plastic is made from feedstocks sourced from mixed automotive plastic waste. Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz is working with BASF and startup Pyrum Innovations to increase the proportion of recycled materials in its car fleet to an average of 40% by 2030. The carmaker utilizes BASF's chemical recycling technology and combines it with pyrolysis oil that Pyrum Innovations generates from used tires.

Gr3n sagl is a company that develops a breakthrough technology enabling the chemical recycling of PET and polyester. In its chemical recycling process, the auxiliary chemicals needed for the reaction and work-up steps are in situ produced from the by-products, making it a closed-loop process that requires only water and energy.

The company announced that it has partnered with Alcantara S.p.A., a material company with a heavy focus on automotive interiors. They're working together to recover “end-of-life” feedstock and production waste. And they will obtain virgin-like PET for new applications through depolymerization.

  • Construction

The National Institutes of Health suggests that the construction industry accounts for 40% of global waste production. Construction and demolition activities can generate large quantities of waste, such as concrete, plastic, and metals. Much of this waste can become recycled construction materials. However, traditional methods are not always effective for dealing with complex construction and demolition materials.

Chemical recycling offers a more efficient way to generate recycled construction materials. By breaking the waste down into its original chemical components, it can be reused in the production of new building materials. The demand for recycled construction materials like wood, concrete, and metals is increasing for construction applications.

Agilyx is a company that specializes in the chemical recycling of polystyrene, a common plastic used in construction materials such as insulation foam boards. The company has partnered with INEOS Styrolution, a world-leading styrenics supplier, to build a chemical recycling facility to recycle waste polystyrene.

  • Fashion

Plastic waste is generated in the fashion industry from various sources throughout the entire supply chain. The waste can come from the production of raw materials, textile manufacturing, packaging, garment care, and end-of-life disposal of garments and accessories. Chemical recycling can be a great solution to address the problem. It can break down garments into their original chemical components, which can then be reused in production.

Zhejiang Jiaren Recycling claims to be the world's "largest chemical-method cyclic regenerated fiber company." It regenerates polyester using chemical recycling technology. The company uses wasted polyester materials and leftover materials as raw materials for production and manufactures them into new polyester fibers with high quality, multi-functions, traceability, and eternal cyclicity. It has worked with clothing brands like H&M, Adidas, Li-Ning, and Nike.

In addition, according to Eastman Chemical Company, luxury brand LVMH’s Perfume & Cosmetic Division has partnered with the company to develop Eastman Cristal Renew co-polyester packaging. The packaging is made with 30% recycled content and will be used for the division's product lines. The chemical recycling company says Christian Dior has already adopted the packaging, and other brands in LVMH’s portfolio are expected to join forces. Moreover, Eastman has also announced plans to build the world’s largest chemical recycling facility in LVMH’s home country, France – the world's fashion capital.

  • Electronics

Chemical recycling can become a transformative e-waste solution that better manages the complex mixture of materials in e-waste. European Commission reports that in 2019, there was a production of over 53 million tonnes (Mt) of e-waste, which is expected to increase to 74 Mt by 2030. Moreover, around 8% of the total gold production annually - approximately 250 tonnes - goes into the production of new electronic devices.

E-waste often contains valuable metals, such as gold, silver, copper, and rare earth elements, alongside hazardous substances like lead, mercury, and brominated flame retardants. Traditional e-waste solutions can be labor-intensive and may lead to some material loss. On the other hand, e-waste can be efficiently processed through chemical recycling to extract valuable metals and safely recover hazardous materials.

Umicore is a global leader in e-waste solutions. The company offers a closed-loop approach for end-of-life electronics, particularly lithium-ion rechargeable batteries. Using eco-friendly methods, its proprietary technology efficiently recovers copper, cobalt, nickel, and lithium in their purest battery-grade form. These precious metals can be converted back into cathode materials for making new rechargeable batteries. Umicore has partnered with Automotive Cells Company (ACC – a joint company between Stellantis, Mercedes-Benz, and TotalEnergies) for ACC's EV cathode materials supply in Europe.

Other major industry players specializing in metal recycling and e-waste solutions include Sims Limited, Aurubis AG, Boliden, and TES-AMM. These companies, among others, have been leading the way in using advanced technologies to extract valuable resources and reduce their impact on the environment.

  • 3D Printing

Many 3D printing materials are petroleum-based plastics, which can be challenging to recycle using traditional methods. With chemical recycling, used 3D-printed objects can be converted into their base components, enabling the production of recycled filaments and powders suitable for 3D printing.

Chemical company INEOS is working on the production of polystyrene using chemical recycling technology. The large production of polystyrene can be beneficial to 3D printing, where the material is commonly used.

Filmentive is a 3D printing filament manufacturer that uses recycled materials for its filament production. It utilizes both post-consumer and pre-consumer (material diverted from the waste stream during) recycled materials as much as possible with careful selection to ensure homogeneity and quality.

Chemical recycling emerges as a transformative and sustainable approach to addressing the global waste crisis. It has the potential to unlock new opportunities for waste management, promoting environmentally responsible practices across diverse industries. Embracing chemical recycling represents a pivotal step towards reducing waste and preserving our planet's natural resources, making it an integral part of the global push toward a greener and more sustainable future.