Chemical recycling creates high-grade goods from plastic trash

Did you know that 79% of the plastic ever made has ended up in landfills or in the environment? As the challenges of mounting plastic waste become increasingly evident in our daily lives, on our TVs and in our social media feeds, people are reacting. Consumers are looking for better options, and a growing number of companies want to include recycled plastic in their products. Innovation is clearly needed.

BASF is using its expertise in chemistry to find new, better ways to repurpose waste plastics. Once the technology and the market conditions are established, it will be possible to reprocess waste material into products of such high quality that they could be used for food packaging.

When it comes to recycling, not all plastics are created equal. Traditional, mechanical recycling is not suitable for high performance plastics which combine several materials to achieve a certain function (e.g. multi-layered packaging that can keep food fresh), or mixed plastics, nor for plastic that is dirty or contaminated with food. A team across BASF challenged itself to find a better solution. The result is the ChemCycling project.  BASF is working with partners to develop and trial new processes that use chemistry to add value to discarded plastic.

“Traditional recycling processes are coming up against technical limits,” explains Stefan Gräter, Project ChemCyling lead at BASF, “There are types of plastic, such as mixed plastics, or contaminated plastic, which cannot be recycled efficiently. Yet these mixed and contaminated plastics are important as a raw material for the thermochemical processes that transform plastic waste into feedstock.”

ChemCycling is hot work. It relies on chemical reactions at temperatures of around 850 degrees Celsius to break down mixed and contaminated plastic waste to make oil or gaseous products. These new ‘reborn’ products are used as raw materials by the chemical industry.

So far, the pilot project has developed new products such as refrigerator components, insulation panels and even packaging for mozzarella cheese. These products demonstrate that the high quality and hygiene standards of the ‘reborn’ ingredients are not compromised in any way.  The diversity of products that can be produced and the unlimited number of times materials can be processed show ChemCycling's potential for scale. The customer can choose the proportion of recycled feedstock in the products they buy.

BASF is committed to working with partners to help chemical recycling realize its potential. In addition to the technological challenges that the ChemCycling project is actively addressing, regulatory support is essential for chemical recycling to be a viable market proposition. Effectively implemented recycling targets, and local and international recognition of chemical recycling as a way to fulfil recycling requirements will be key for this project to succeed.

“It is an exciting time to realize a project like ChemCyling,” Stefan concludes, “and by working with our partners on everyday products, everyone can see the benefits. Done correctly and at scale, chemical recycling can be a way to create a circular economy model for plastics. It's going to take collaboration with our partners - from waste collectors and suppliers, to customers - to make this happen, and we at BASF are committed to doing our part.”