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UK-based plastic recycling leader, Mura Technology, is building the world’s first commercial-scale recycling plant that uses chemical recycling and generates a profit in Teesside, north-east England.
Commercial-Scale Recycling Plant in Teesside
Mura is helping to fix an often-overlooked problem in waste management, recycling, and the so-called “circular economy”: the downward spiral of wasted material caused by inefficient and ineffective plastic recycling.
The company has invested in new chemical recycling methods that turn plastic back into the oil it came from, significantly reducing the wasted materials and energy that conventional plastic recycling methods entail.
Mura’s Teesside development will put the company’s focus on chemical recycling to the test. This commercial-scale recycling plant will be the first of its kind worldwide – potentially adding significant recycling capacity where landfills and incinerators have been the only viable solutions.
What are the Challenges of Plastic Recycling Today?
Plastic, which takes up to thousands of years to degrade and pollutes ecosystems worldwide in the process, is a widespread scourge on the environment. Efforts to recycle wasted material have been a common feature of local and national government policy for decades, but they have not been enough.
Plastic is difficult to recycle precisely because of its desirable property: its extreme durability. This means that most plastic that has ever been created is still physically present somewhere in the environment.
It gets into soil, waterways, food chains through animals’ bodies, and human bodies. It is toxic to human and animal health and may be causing long-ranging problems for Earth’s occupants and the planet itself.
As well as lasting in the environment for so long, the durability of plastic also makes it notoriously difficult to recycle. Only 9% of all the plastic ever made has been recycled today.
The problem is not going away. Over 380 million tons of plastic are produced annually worldwide. Today, 40% of plastic waste goes to a managed landfill site, 25% is burned in an incinerator, and 19% is illegally dumped. Only 16% of new plastic waste is recycled.
Even the plastic waste and discarded items that are recycled often cannot be recycled effectively. Traditional mechanical recycling processes require plastic to be sorted, cleaned, shredded, melted and remolded into new products.
However, this process produces an inferior quality material, and many applications such as food and medical packaging continue to rely on virgin plastics derived from fossil fuels. This is because polymer chains break down in the melting process, which limits the new materials’ tensile strength and viscosity.
Each time plastic is recycled in this way, the resulting material is worse than the original. Eventually, plastic that has been repeatedly recycled is no longer usable at all.
The extensive sorting and packing processes required by traditional mechanical plastic recycling is energy and labor-intensive, and companies operating traditional commercial-scale recycling plants often only manage to operate with the help of government subsidies.
Chemical recycling may hold the answer to these problems. It can be done with much less waste sorting beforehand and results in good-quality polymers that are usable in high-end plastic applications.
Chemical recycling: the end of plastic waste? | Rethink Sustainability
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Can Chemical Recycling Effectively Tackle the Plastic Waste Problem?
Polymer chemistry – the area of chemistry that studies plastics and their creation, features, and properties – has recently become very focused on the possibility of chemical recycling.
With chemical recycling, hard plastic is turned back into the oil that it was made from, which can then be used to make new-quality plastic products. The possibility of recycling plastic in this way has existed for decades, although it has been unviable until recently. This is because of the large amounts of energy required for most chemical recycling techniques put forward so far.
Once the energy cost is factored into the overall production cost, the recycled material is simply too expensive to receive any widespread use. Often, new plastic made from crude oil is simply too cheap not to choose.
However, if a commercial-scale recycling plant leads to viable prices for chemical recycling, then the benefits of this kind of recycling process will come to bear on the wider challenge of plastic pollution in the atmosphere.
Chemical recycling can process mixed plastics of all kinds at once. This is an enormous benefit, as much plastic that is not recycled today is sent to landfill simply due to confusion about curbside waste collection, or inadequate infrastructure, or the high relative cost of recycling small pieces of material.
How Will Mura’s Commercial-Scale Recycling Plant Work?
When it has been built, the new plant in Teesside will use Mura’s hydrothermal chemical recycling technique. This method uses supercritical water in the chemical recycling reactor chamber to avoid the need for outside heating that typical chemical recycling entails. This greatly reduces the energy requirement for chemical recycling and makes the process inherently scalable.
The new plant is due for completion in 2022. Mura is already partnering with leading materials and consultancy companies worldwide - as well as the UK Government. The plastic problem may be significantly impacted by its new systems of advanced recycling.
References and Further Reading
Goldsberry, Clare (2021). Dow Partners with Mura Technology to Scale Game-Changing Advanced Recycling of Plastics. Plastics Today. [Online] Available at: https://www.plasticstoday.com/advanced-recycling/dow-partners-mura-technology-scale-game-changing-advanced-recycling-plastics.
Latham, Katharine (2021). The World’s First ‘Infinite’ Plastic. BBC Future Planet. [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210510-how-to-recycle-any-plastic.