Chemical recycling of plastic waste
Plastics do have proven benefits during their use phase – for example preservation of food loss in packaging applications, lightweight construction of vehicles, and building insulation. Plastic waste, however, and in particular plastic waste in the context of marine littering, is a major global challenge. There is also increasing regulatory pressure regarding recycling targets and recyclability on the one hand and strong commitments of our customers towards increasing the share of recycled material in their offerings on the other hand. Solving these challenges requires innovation and joint efforts globally across the value chain. We will contribute to tackling this. For example, BASF is a founding member of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste since a collaborative effort of companies, governmental and non-governmental organizations as well as civil society is necessary to address the global challenge of mismanaged plastic waste.
Since mechanical recycling is limited, e.g. due to high sorting requirements and decreasing material quality in each cycle, BASF has taken up this challenge and develops innovative technologies that promote recycling of plastics. This includes research and development on new materials and additives that facilitate recycling processes as well as several chemical recycling processes to create value out of plastic waste. Chemical recycling allows to recycle plastics for which there are no recycling solutions or missing capacities today and is therefore complementary to mechanical recycling.
Facts about chemical recycling
Complementary: While large volumes of sorted single-stream plastics can and should be recycled mechanically, chemical recycling can process, for example, mixed plastic waste streams for which it may be impossible or very inefficient to sort them for a high-value mechanical recycling. With pyrolysis, about 70% of mixed plastic waste can be converted into secondary raw materials.
Virgin quality: With chemical recycling, plastic waste streams can be converted back into feedstock for the chemical industry and allocated to products manufactured in BASF’s integrated production system via a mass balance approach. These products have the exact same properties as those manufactured from fossil feedstock.
Ease of use: Our customers can process these products in the same way as conventionally manufactured products and use them in applications with high demands on quality, hygiene and performance. These include, for example, medical applications, food packaging or safety-relevant automotive parts.
Solution oriented: Chemical recycling is an end-of-life option for high-performance plastics, e.g. multi-layer packaging. Redesigning plastic products and packaging with an aim to make them mechanically recyclable is not always possible or desirable if this would e.g. lower performance or increase waste volumes.
Certified transparently: Both the mass balance procedure, by which the proportion of recycled raw material is allocated to the product, and the products themselves are certified by independent auditors.
Chemical recycling can help reduce the proportion of plastic waste which ends up in landfill or incineration. With chemical recycling, fossil resources for chemical production can be replaced with recycled material from plastic waste. How does it work? Plastic waste is transformed into secondary raw materials, such as pyrolysis oil or monomers, e.g. by using thermochemical processes, hydrolysis or solvolysis. The recycled raw materials can be used in the production of new plastics. Based on the mass balance approach, the share of recycled material is allocated to the product by a third-party audited methodology. The result: Certified products which are indistinguishable from products manufactured from fossil feedstock and which can be used by our customers in demanding applications, e.g. food packaging.
With eco-efficiency analysis we ensure that innovative approaches create value for the environment.
ChemCyclingTM is the name of a project launched by BASF in 2018 with the aim of manufacturing products from chemically recycled plastic waste on an industrial scale. As we focus on plastic waste for which no high-value value recycling processes are established yet, ChemCyclingTM is complementary to mechanical recycling. Examples of waste plastics which are difficult to recycle mechanically include mixed plastic waste, plastics with residues or multi-layer food packaging.
In the ChemCyclingTM project, we cooperate with technology partners who use a thermochemical process called pyrolysis to transform the plastic waste into raw material (pyrolysis oil). We can feed this oil into our chemical production Verbund at the beginning of the value chain (e.g. steam cracker), thereby replacing fossil feedstock. In the pilot phase, BASF presented first prototypes with customers. These include mozzarella cheese packaging, transparent refrigerator components and insulation boxes for sensitive applications. In 2020, first commercial products were launched by customers in the German market.
We have established partnerships with Quantafuel, Pyrum and New Energy. Quantafuel is a specialist for pyrolysis of mixed plastic waste and purification of the resulting oil, Pyrum and New Energy are specialized in the pyrolysis of end-of-life tires. BASF will use the pyrolysis oil from end-of-life tires as an additional raw material source next to oil from mixed plastic waste, the use of which is the long-term focus of the ChemCycling project. With these partnerships, BASF has taken a significant step towards establishing a broad supply base for pyrolysis oil and towards offering customers products based on chemically recycled plastic waste on a commercial scale.
However, any new recycling process needs acceptance as recycling from market and regulators. There are many open questions with regards to technology, economy and regulation. We closely engage with the relevant stakeholders to tackle these challenges.