Skip to main content

Advanced and sustainable recycling processes and value chains for plastic-based multi-materials

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - MultiCycle (Advanced and sustainable recycling processes and value chains for plastic-based multi-materials)

Reporting period: 2018-11-01 to 2020-04-30

Plastics bring unprecedented value in terms of convenience, versatility of design and lightweight to European consumers as well as increasingly advanced performances even in high end applications. Independently of the duration of use of the plastic goods, they all share insufficient recycling rate and, while the limit of our natural resources has been identified as one of our key societal challenges decades ago, the depletion continues. Only 31% of plastic packaging are currently recycled and an excessive 30-40% are landfilled, this being due to infra-developed technologies or to their unsatisfactory economic viability. This is in fact aggravated by considering plastics as commodity where their economic value is linked to a single use, often not taking into account the potentially generated end of life (EoL) hurdles. Plastics have ubiquitous uses but also too often uncontrolled leakage in the environment (according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, as much as 32% end up out of controlled waste management systems) among others due to the low incentives for their secondary use. In line with the just released Plastic Strategy for Europe, the time has come to shift to a Circular Model in the plastic sector improving the recycling rate but also the value of secondary raw materials (SRM) from plastic recycling.
As such, to support significant technological advancements to meet such strategy and with an overarching mission to maximise the valorisation of our finite plastic resources, MULTICYCLE is developing a tailored sustainable process approach to the recycling of thermoplastic-based multi-materials to enable their use in multiple life cycles. Our process will be demonstrated in two main large volume applications:
1. Multilayer packaging (including PET, PE, PP and barrier layers) but also flexible films that cannot be recycled cost effectively to date. This accounts for around 50% of plastic packaging, i.e. ca. 10 mio tons/year in EU.
2. Fibre reinforced thermoplastics (FRP) (e.g. PA or PP matrix, long glass or carbon fibres). Plastic parts constitute around 16% of EU End-of-Life Vehicles wastes, i.e. ca. 1 mio tons/y.
Nowadays multilayer plastic films are needed to pack gas sensitive goods and their share on the packaging market is increasing (in some cases flexible barrier solutions even substitute rigid packaging), they are not recycled in practice, since pure polymers are needed for reprocessing, and the vast majority of them end up in landfill or energy recovery systems. In fact, even small monolayer films as used for pouches, lids, etc. are difficult to handle in the context of current mechanical recycling plants and only rarely recycled.
Furthermore, there is an increasing use of fibre reinforced plastic parts in the transport industry especially for lightweight purposes. Nevertheless, the mechanical recycling of composites poses several limitations like high energy consumption, partial polymer degradation and downgrading the fibre length due to the grinding needed before reprocessing. Therefore, recovered materials are often directed to low value applications or only a minor recycled material fraction can be mixed with virgin materials to avoid deteriorating parts properties.
For both automotive and packaging multimaterials, we use a novel solvent-based recycling process (CreaSolv®, a registered trademark of the Creacycle GmbH). It has been patented by FRAUNHOFER and has been industrially scaled up for polyolefin-based packaging applications. It is a selective extraction process that allows pure plastics to be recovered due to their specific solubility. It has no by-product (solvents can be used in a closed loop endlessly) and a very low environmental impact demonstrated by peer-reviewed LCAs. Unlike general chemical recycling that generates monomers requiring a new polymerization step, CreaSolv® generates polymers. One further advantage is that by using successive steps with tailored solvents, even mixed input materials can be recycled. Furthermore, due to the mild conditions used, it maintains the polymer properties. For composites, CreaSolv® showed to preserve the quality and length of the reinforcement fibres. Since it allows removing contaminants and possibly revalorizing additives, it also solves significant challenges met for mechanical recycling of complex primary formulations. MULTICYCLE’s goal is to overcome the remaining challenges of the new process’s demonstration, and prepare for its market uptake. The MULTICYCLE recycling process chain starts with tailored solutions to monitor the composition of input multi-materials, which are fed to the novel separation process allowing the recovery of the single polymer fractions with properties equivalent to virgin counterparts and long reinforcement fibres.
The process for recycling packaging and automotive materials is being upscaled in an industrial pilot plant that has been built and will include in the next months a smart control system based on Process Analytical Technologies. In terms of subsequent reprocessing, any adjustment in performance for the secondary use is handled by optimising the compound formulation. In order to facilitate wide market adoption, the characterisation of reprocessed materials and accessible applications thereof is given utmost attention to match specified requirements for their secondary use (e.g. packaging for food & personal care applications and textiles-based reinforced & composites automotive parts). The potential to substitute a high amount of virgin materials will be a key pull strategy for the recycling value chain and for reducing the overall carbon footprint of the plastics industry along multiple life cycles. The economic viability of the MULTICYCLE process is being calculated and compared with other solutions whenever available. In addition, life cycle analysis and costs assessments will demonstrate the most sustainable EoL approach.
Our significant progress beyond the state of the art for the circular use of plastic-based packaging and FRPs as well as in the field of waste plastic monitoring, of the implementation of the CreaSolv® Process and the recovered polymer reprocessing lead to price and performance improvements.
This will result in many complementary potential socio-economic impacts (more details in section 1.3):
• More efficient & sustainable processing technologies using plastic waste as feedstocks to produce added-value products. Improved enforcement of plastic EoL-related policies to lower environmental burden. Decreased utilisation of primary fossil resources by > 30% and CO2 emissions by >20% in the process industries
• At least 2 patent filings expected. New revenues from the commercialisation of recycling plants and of recycled materials
• A concerted circular value chain approach to maximise the prospects of the necessary systemic changes
• Visibility as a leading CE initiative through our Circular Plastics Helix. Effective dissemination of major innovation outcomes to the current/ next generation of employees in the SPIRE sectors, through the development of learning resources with flexible usability.