Europe Embraces Plastic to Fight Climate Change
For years, the green movement has seen plastics as villains. Europe’s now turning that on its head.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Plastics could be friends — not enemies — in protecting the planet.
In the fight against climate change, plastics are often public enemy number one. But in September, Dow Chemical Co. signed an unlikely agreement with a Dutch firm that aims to help the American giant reduce its carbon footprint in Europe — by turning to plastic.
Under the deal, the Netherlands-based Fuenix Ecogy group will supply Dow with feedstock made from recycled plastics using a process known as pyrolysis that breaks down polymers into oil. Dow will then use this feedstock to produce fresh polymers at its Dutch facility in Terneuzen, closing a circular loop that marries the qualities of plastics — including their strength and moldability — with cutting-edge scientific research to reduce waste.
Fuenix Ecogy is part of a broader effort that’s taking off across Europe — in the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, France and Germany — to treat plastics as allies in the battle against global warming, by converting the synthetic material back into its building blocks. These chemical recycling methods are feeding into European goals to go carbon neutral by 2050 and are setting up a plastic-to-fuel technology market estimated to reach $2.3 billion by 2026.
Dutch company BlueAlp has declared plans to build Europe’s first commercial plastic-to-oil plant. A consortium of companies that include Shell and the Port of Rotterdam wants to process 360,000 tons of nonrecyclable waste, including plastics, into 220,000 ton of methanol through a new plant. Ioniqa, Eindhoven University of Technology’s clean-tech spin-off, is specializing in converting polyethylene terephthalate (PET) polyesters into components that can be rebuilt into new, “virgin-quality” PET.
In Sweden, Chalmers University of Technology researchers have shown how to recover 100 percent of the carbon from plastic waste and turn it back into its virgin components. Research institute MISTRA is exploring the use of captured carbon dioxide as a feedstock while the Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) are looking at recycling complicated plastic waste into chemicals.
We’re seeing a lot of demand from the market.
Johannes Musseleck, INEOS Styrolution director of global strategy
Over in Germany, research institutions EPEA Hamburg and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and the chemical company BASF are using depolymerization — where polymers are turned into constituent monomers — to make products from recycled plastics. The University of Freiberg is developing a process known as gasification — where plastics are decomposed into a mix of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and hydrogen. And INEOS Styrolution, another German company, in October showed a proof of concept for technology that can convert polystyrene into its monomer, styrene. They’re hoping to make the technology commercially viable by 2021, says Johannes Musseleck, the company’s director of global strategy. Polystyrene is a cost-effective high-quality food packaging option.
“We don’t think [polystyrene] is a bad product … and it can be recycled in many different ways,” says Musseleck. “We’re seeing a lot of demand from the market.”
Driving these European efforts is an unlikely coalition consisting of research institutions, companies, universities — and even industry workers. In Belgium, the trade union Agoria has launched a forum that’s exploring circular economy initiatives including chemical recycling. Meanwhile, France is playing host to a new plant belonging to the firm Plastic Energy. French company Citeo is supporting startups in the chemical recycling space.
It’s no surprise that Europe is leading these initiatives. The concept of a circular economy is high on the agenda of the EU. It is a bigger priority in Europe than elsewhere, says Sander Defruyt from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Canada and the U.S. are only just embarking on chemical recycling development.
But the benefits of these efforts extend beyond the continent. European nations are partnering with countries further east such as China and the Gulf States to transfer their expertise. Saudi Basic Industries Corp., for instance, is the first petrochemical company to announce plans to invest in a plastic waste-to-feedstock project with a Netherlands-based facility, intended for 2021. According to a World Economic Forum report, a circular economy could save up to $700 billion in materials annually in the consumer goods sector. Chemically rebuilt plastics are expected to be of higher purity and quality than mechanically recycled plastics as the process makes it possible to remove additives.
To be sure, challenges remain in “scaling it up,” says Defruyt. For the moment, there’s a lack of standardization with different countries using different polymerization technologies and solvents.
“The overall environmental benefits are different” for each of these solvents and technologies, he adds. Some require higher temperatures, higher pressure and more energy than others. In the absence of standardization, there’s no telling whether all the chemicals used for the breakdown process meet health requirements.
And these new recycling technologies don’t mean that all plastic is fine. Defruyt says we do “need to eliminate” unnecessary plastic items. But higher quality plastic like polystyrene no longer needs to spark alarm.
At Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Professor Joydeep Dutta is working on an EU-funded project to break down plastics using natural sunlight. “Have you ever noticed how a plastic bag cracks in the heat?” he asks. “That happens because ultraviolet light breaks up the plastic.”
This process — photocatalytic oxidation — can take years, so Dutta’s team has created nanomaterial-coated filter systems to speed it up.
The technology could be a game-changer in places with an acute plastic waste problem, like Lebanon. But there’s a more fundamental path to the future at stake. An old enemy of the environment might just be emerging in a new avatar: as a friend.