Plastics are materials of value, too precious to simply be thrown away or even disposed of in the environment. They belong back into the material cycle, as recyclate that ideally does not differ from a new raw material. That sounds diffcult, given the unbelievably large number of different types of plastics and plastic mixtures, don’t you think? Times are changing: we present two approaches with trendsetting potential.
The spirit of the times brings new thinking: more and more companies are working to improve the reuse of plastics at the end of their lifecycle. However, all efforts always reach their limits when it comes to mixed plastic composites or multicomponent systems rather than pure materials. So far, these residual materials can only be thermally recycled, but not materially recycled.
This could change in the foreseeable future in view of a process that BASF is currently testing. In contrast to conventional methods, the material used in the process known as “ChemCycling” is not mechanically treated and processed into a solid granulate, but liquefied to a pyrolysis oil under the influence of thermal energy. In simple terms, higher molecularweight polymers are decomposed into low molecular-weight products that can be processed back into higher molecularweight polymers after appropriate separation.
Sounds like a good prerequisite for upcycling the plastic residues used. If established recycling processes and chemical recycling were combined, experts are convinced that the recycling rate for plastics could be more than tripled to 50 percent by 2030. ChemCycling would make a valuable contribution to the Circular Economy.
Thinking from the ground up
Scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California, USA, are pursuing a different approach, but one that points in a similar direction. A major difference is that they already think about the end of use when manufacturing plastic products.
The Berkeley researchers are working on a polymer that, at the molecular level, can basically be broken down into its smallest components and reassembled like a Lego play set into ever-changing and new shapes, textures and colours – without sacrifcing performance or quality. Beginning at the end to think through, develop and produce plastics that can move through the recycling loop in their entirety and without loss – this idea is by no means new. Not even the many considerations regarding technological approaches to material recycling.
Sometimes things just have to mature. The pioneering achievement lies in repeatedly trying to see failure not as defeat but as an incentive to successfully make the leap from theoretical consideration to practical application. K 2019 is the place where users experience inspiration for their practical applications. The plastics and rubber industry is always good for a surprise. Be there from 16 to 23 October 2019 at the Düsseldorf Exhibition Centre and experience it for yourself.