This Is Plastics: Recycling 101: Advanced Recycling

Plastics 101

Recycling 101: Advanced Recycling

Advanced recycling, which refers to chemical recycling, gasification or pyrolysis, is pushing the boundaries of how and where recycled plastics can be used.


Top 3 Takeaways

Recycling is an umbrella term that covers many processes. Another umbrella term is advanced recycling. These are innovative ways of turning used plastics into materials that are as good as new.

What Is Advanced Recycling?

Advanced recycling refers to processes like chemical recycling, pyrolysis and gasification, which are used to turn plastic polymers back into individual monomers—allowing materials to be reused in a variety of ways. In these processes, the chemical building blocks that make up the recycled plastic are recovered. The fundamental building blocks can in some cases be re-polymerized endlessly, giving them the qualities of brand-new, or virgin, resin. The transformation can occur through a variety of processes, all of which avoid combustion, or burning, of plastics.

Here’s one way plastics can be chemically recycled in an oxygen-free environment:

Graphic showing the process of chemical recycling

Polymer: a large molecule made up of monomers
Monomer: a molecule that can be bonded to others to create a polymer
Re-polymerization: the process in which recycled monomers are bonded to create new polymers

Chemical recycling is any process by which a polymer is chemically reduced to its original monomer form so that it can eventually be processed (re-polymerized) and remade into new plastic materials that go on to be new plastic products. Chemical recycling helps us overcome the limits of traditional recycling. It also helps manufacturers continue to push the boundaries of how, and where, recycled plastics can be used. Chemical recycling has long been used for nylons, and the industry is working to make it possible for other resin types.

Pyrolysis, sometimes called “plastics to fuel,” turns non-recycled plastics from municipal solid waste (garbage) into a synthetic crude oil that can be refined into diesel fuel, gasoline, heating oil or waxes. Using pyrolysis to convert non-recycled plastics into ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD) fuel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 14% and water consumption by 58%, and it saves up to 96% in traditional energy use as opposed to ULSD from conventional crude oil.

Gasification turns non-recycled materials from municipal solid waste (garbage) into a synthesis gas, or “syngas,” which can be used for electric power generation or converted into fuel or chemical feedstocks, such as ethanol and methanol, some of which can also be used to make new plastics that go into consumer products.

Advanced Recycling in Action

The Hefty® Energy Bag™ Program – To keep non-recycled plastic items from going to landfills, Hefty® launched an EnergyBag™ program. Residents put items such as candy wrappers and empty juice pouches into special orange bags, and then the orange bags are taken to energy conversion facilities. The program has expanded to multiple cities across Nebraska, Idaho and Georgia. It’s estimated that the program has diverted more than 24 tons of plastics from landfills, the equivalent of approximately 19 million snack-sized chip bags or 117 barrels of diesel fuel.

Agilyx an alternative energy company, recycles polystyrene (which most people know as Styrofoam™) into high-value petrochemicals. Agilyx’s polystyrene recycling process creates like-new materials while generating fewer greenhouse gases than manufacturing does.

Shaw Industries Group uses chemical recycling for nylon and polyester fiber in carpets. The company has invested more than $20 million to convert products that were once seen as waste into valuable resources. They reclaimed and recycled more than 800 million pounds of carpet from 2006 to 2015.

Resinate Materials Group collects chemicals from plastic materials and works to promote the practical and economical value of chemically recycled plastics. The company has found several high-value applications for the chemicals harvested from recycled medical plastics. It uses certain types of recycled packaging to create coatings, adhesives and sealants.

Patagonia, an outdoor clothing brand, chemically recycles non-wearable Capilene® polyester and fleece products. Today, the brand features a collection of products made completely from recycled materials. Patagonia’s chemical recycling process uses 76% less energy than the process used to make new polyester.

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