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Governments pursue chemical recycling

Projects in the US and Indonesia opt to turn hard-to-process materials into fuels

by Alex Tullo
April 11, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 15

A photo of plastic waiting to be recycled.
Credit: Shutterstock

Local officials are beginning to opt for the chemical conversion of plastics into fuels as a means of processing difficult plastic waste. The City of Phoenix is working with Salt Lake City–based start-up Renewlogy to build a conversion plant. And the British firm Plastic Energy has a deal to build plants using its technology in West Java, Indonesia.

Renewlogy, which has pyrolysis technology for converting waste plastics into fuels, will form a joint venture with a local waste management firm to build its plant. The plant will process plastics coded 3 through 7—materials such as polystyrene and polypropylene that aren’t mechanically recycled as widely as polyethylene terephthalate and high-density polyethylene, which are coded 1 and 2, respectively. The plant will have the capacity to process about 10 metric tons per day of the material into 60 barrels of liquid fuel.

Phoenix officials say their plan is a reaction to National Sword, a Chinese government policy that stopped the import of US plastics for sorting and disposal. “During a time when cities are giving up on recycling, Phoenix is again leading the way,” says Mayor Kate Gallego.

Separately, the government of West Java has signed an agreement under which Plastic Energy will build five facilities that transform plastic into fuel in a process the firm calls thermal anaerobic conversion. Indonesia is one of the world’s leading sources of plastic waste because of its lack of waste management infrastructure.

Plastic Energy already operates two plants in Spain. In December, it signed an agreement with Sabic to build a plant in the Netherlands that will provide feedstock for Sabic’s chemical plants.

Jan Dell, a chemical engineer whose organization, the Last Beach Cleanup, works with investors and environmental groups on projects to reduce plastic pollution, has her doubts about chemical recycling. “The economic realities of cheap new plastic production and low-cost oil and gas production make chemical recycling processes economically uncompetitive and impractical at commercial scale,” she says. “Labor, transport, and processing costs for collecting, sorting, and recycling plastic make it more costly than new plastic or new oil.”

Such initiatives distract from the need to reduce consumption of single-use plastics, Dell adds.



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