Central to any circular economy is polymer recycling. Current mechanical recycling processes face many issues from societal perceptions of recycling, to economic and technological barriers; however, there are a number of companies whose innovations are changing the face of polymer recycling. From IDTechEx's latest report, Green Technology and Polymer Recycling: Market Analysis 2020-2030
by Dr Bryony Core, here is a rundown of some of these key companies.
Agilyx is a multifaceted waste polymer recycling company, developing technologies to convert non-recyclable polyolefins and polystyrene into synthetic crude oil. After the price of crude oil dropped to $40 per barrel, they adapted to this new environment by developing as well as developing the first fully circular chemical recycling system for polystyrene, known as the Agilyx Polystyrene to Styrene Monomer system (PSM). Compared to polyolefins, polystyrene is easily depolymerised back into the monomer. However, ratios of contamination to polymer with used expanded PS is tremendously high, particularly in seedling trays, and so Agilyx have restructured their platform to adapt to the cleaning requirements of low volumes of polystyrene waste. Processing up to 50 tons per day at their headquarters in Canada, Agilyx is collaborating with AmSty and Ineos Styrolution to source waste for their new facilities in Chicago and California. As polystyrene is readily depolymerised, Agilyx's technology may be key to increasing global rates of recycling polystyrene which consistently hover around 1-2%
Founded in 1969, Aquafil decades of experience in synthesising polyamides and have since turned their attention to developing a polyamide recycling technology. They developed the ECONYL fibre range, which starts with waste PA6 from fishing nets, scrap textiles and old carpets, depolymerises to the monomer and is repolymerised to form fibres for textile or carpet applications. Aquafil sends the recycled fibres direct to suppliers to be reintegrated into the value chain and counts both Burberry and Prada as users of their ECONYL fibres.
Whereas depolymerisation is a chemical process, there are alternative physical methods to recycling polymers which offer solutions to some of the challenges mentioned regarding mechanical recycling. Polystyvert is one such company who are developing a solvent extraction process to overcome the economic hurdles facing polystyrene recycling. One of the central issues that make polystyrene prohibitively expensive to recycle is the fact that expanded PS is 98% air, 2% polymer. However, Polystyvert's business model and technology combined significantly reduce costs of transporting waste and make it economically viable. By sending out essential oils to dissolve the polymer to the waste producer, Polystyvert can recover the polymer from the mixture and recycle it. Polystyvert is an exemplar case study in turning conventional thinking about recycling on its head.
Less than 1% of non-clothing textiles are recycling, but Worn Again have developed a new recycling process to change this. Using a solvent extraction technique to separate polymer and cotton from polyester-cotton blend fabrics, Worn Again recovers PET polymer from other materials such as cotton, as well as any dyes or contaminants, with minimal loss of properties. Compared to mechanical recycling, the polymer is no longer separated by the levels of contaminant dyes present, which limit further reuse. Worn Again counts companies like sustainability-focussed fashion retailers such as H&M and Kering among its partners, demonstrating the appetite for a solution to fashion waste.
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