An ambitious scheme, launched in 2019, is making significant headway in the development of decontamination processes for the recirculation of contaminated industrial waste plastic. To commemorate Plastic-Free July, AZoCleantech looks at how the NONTOX Project will help reduce the damage plastic is causing to our planet.
Image Credit: ImagineStock/Shutterstock.com
Led by the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, the NONTOX Project is developing a novel approach to the recovery of waste from the construction, automotive, and electrical industries, which, until now, have been branded as non-recyclable due to their hazardous impurities.
The project aims to increase the recycling rates of such plastics through the development and integration of cutting-edge recycling technologies, including Extruclean and Creasolv, to produce high-quality secondary materials.
What is Contaminated Plastic?
Although the necessity to recycle continues to gather public awareness, the current technology to do so has not yet been able to meet this demand. In 2016, it was reported by the European Commission that out of the 27 million tons of plastic waste generated within the EU, only 14.8% of this was successfully recycled.
One of the major hurdles stunting these recycling rates is the common presence of hazardous additives within plastics. Significantly, waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), end-of-life vehicles (ELV), and construction and demolition waste (CDW) all contain additives and compounds such as flame retardants, stabilizers, and filling materials which pose health and environmental risks, preventing them from being safely re-injected into the circular plastic economy. As such, these contaminated plastics currently follow a linear trajectory destined for landfill or incineration.
It was, however, not until 2019 that plastic became officially listed as a hazardous waste by the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous wastes and Their Disposal. This has dictated legally binding standards for exporting contaminated waste plastics, impeding the widespread transportation of plastic waste to developing countries. The pressure is therefore on to develop the capability to remove these toxic impurities from waste plastic for it to be safely recycled.
The NONTOX Project
The NONTOX Project was conceived in 2019 to specifically address this contaminated plastic pandemic. With funding granted by the European Union’s research and innovation program Horizon 2020, the project brings together a consortium of internationally renowned industry partners, led by the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, all with the shared ambition to create a viable and economical hazardous plastic materials recovery process.
Specifically, research is being undertaken into tackling the recirculation of WEEE, ELV, and CDW waste owing to their particularly toxic nature.
The consideration of the whole value chain is crucial to breaking through the current stagnant rates of plastic recycling. The NONTOX Project is split into eight definitive work packages, each focusing on a unique aspect of the recycling value chain; from the sorting and pre-treatment processes to developing enhanced valorization of the yielded substances.
Combined with the holistic partnership of both mechanical and chemical recycling technologies, it is hoped that an economically competitive recycling process will be developed by 2022 with the capability of producing safe and high-quality secondary plastics from hazardous plastic waste.
Technology Employed in the NONTOX Project
Work package two constitutes perhaps the most elemental objective of the NONTOX Project: “the development of novel recycling technologies… able to remove the hazardous and undesirable substances such as flame retardants from the plastic matrix without breaking the polymer chains”.
Two state-of-the-art technologies, Extruclean and Creasolv, have been developed, which together achieve the optimized mechanical and chemical plastic decontamination process.
Removing hazardous substances to increase recycling rates of WEEE, ELV and CDW plastics - NONTOX
Video Credit: AIMPLAS Instituto Tecnológico del Plástico/YouTube.com
What is Extruclean?
Extruclean is fundamentally a washing process for the decontamination of plastic packaging. Coordinated by the Technological Institute of Plastics, AIMPLAS, the extruclean project has conceptualized a dual extruder design, the first of which injects supercritical carbon dioxide to be infused into the waste polymer matrix, before the vacuum-like degassing port of extruder two extracts the volatile contaminants.
This unique system has been proven to eliminate 86% of toxic impurities, achieving a 70% improvement in comparison to traditional washing methods. Furthermore, the conventional triple wash and dry process requires substantial amounts of water, detergent, and energy while subsequently producing wastewater requiring purification treatment. In contrast, Extruclean simplifies the washing process to achieve a vast reduction in these inefficiencies.
What is Creasolv?
Creasolv, developed and patented by research organization Fraunhofer, is then employed as a selective separation process, specifically adapted to the unique formulae of WEEE, EVL, and CDW.
Through solvent-based extraction use, the target plastics are dissolved and effectively separated from complex material mixtures, including hazardous contaminants, achieving plastic recovery with much higher purity than previously employed mechanical separation methods. This, therefore, produces plastics with virgin-like properties, improving the valorization of plastic recyclates. So far, this technology has been demonstrated for the successful purification of ELV waste streams, and to a lesser extent, for the removal of brominated flame retardants from ABS, HIPs, and polyolefins.
Further Steps Towards Contaminated Plastic Recovery
Defining manageable work packages from project initiation has been key to the impressive progress so far and forms a clear continued trajectory towards enhanced plastic materials recovery.
Having evidenced the feasibility of both Extruclean and Creasolv, the continuation of work package two will bring them to a technology readiness level of 5 in the context of industrial waste applications.
As stated in the 2020 NONTOX periodic report, further primary focuses going forward will be to enhance the yield purity of both the target and the non-target polymers - the latter of which are converted to hydrocarbons. The project will also help explore strategies for the safe utilization of the removed contaminants, demonstrate the broad applications of recycled polymers following eco-design principles, and effectively disseminate these results across Europe.
If these ambitious objectives are achieved, the impact of this two-year international collaboration could be immense. NONTOX predicts that the widespread implementation of the developing concepts will prevent approximately 5 megatons of valuable plastic from being incinerated each year, from which 1 megaton of CO2 emissions will be prevented.
Looking past these evident environmental benefits, it is also foreseen that NONTOX will be responsible for the creation of new job roles across Europe through increased recycling facilities, truly addressing the full value chain of plastic material recovery.
References and Further Reading
AIMPLAS (2017) Recycled plastic packaging: the LIFE EXTRUCLEAN project concludes successfully having eliminated 86% of contaminants in hazardous plastic packaging waste. [Online] AIMPLAS. Available at: https://www.aimplas.net/blog/recycled-plastic-packaging-the-life-extruclean-project-concludes-successfully-having-eliminated-86-of-contaminants-in-hazardous-plastic-packaging-waste/ (Accessed 18 July 2021)
Cordis (2021) Removing hazardous substances to increase recycling rates of WEEE, ELV and CDW plastics. [Online] Cordis EU Research results. Available at: https://cordis.europa.eu/project/id/820895/reporting (Accessed 18 July 2021)
Cross, L. (2019) UN lists plastic as hazardous waste, votes to control international trade. [Online] Available at: https://inhabitat.com/un-lists-plastic-as-hazardous-waste-votes-to-control-international-trade/ (Accessed 18 July 2021)
NONTOX. (n.d.) Technology. [Online] NONTOX. Available at: http://nontox-project.eu/?page_id=19 (Accessed 18 July 2021)
SpecialChem. (2021) New Project to Recover Contaminated Plastics from Industrial Waste. [Online] SpecialChem. Available at: https://omnexus.specialchem.com/news/industry-news/contaminated-plastics-industrial-waste-aimplas-000225217 (Accessed 18 July 2021)
Tullo, N. (2019) Plastic has a problem; is chemical recycling the solution? [Online] c&en. Available at: https://cen.acs.org/environment/recycling/Plastic-problem-chemical-recycling-solution/97/i39 (Accessed 18 July 2021)