The limited number of processes used to recycle plastic are broken down into two categories: mechanical and chemical. What we do at Seraphim Plastics is considered mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling is much more difficult and financially risky. But now, a Finnish enterprise known as the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has plans to turn chemical recycling on its head.
According to news reports, VTT is on the verge of forming a new company that will ostensibly turn all sorts of recycled plastics into virgin-grade materials for new manufacturing. The company is to be known as Olefy Technologies. Its business will operate on recycling technology developed at VTT.
Mechanical vs. Chemical Recycling
Most of the plastic recycling around the world is mechanical. Again, it is what we do. Mechanical recycling involves reducing plastic waste to pellets or flakes using machinery. The resulting material is then combined with virgin plastic in the manufacturing process.
Mechanical recycling is easy to pull off and cost-effective. However, it degrades the material in question. Most plastics can only go through a certain number of mechanical reduction cycles before quality is reduced to the point of making the material unusable.
Chemical recycling is intended to overcome that problem. It works, but not cost-effectively. It is expensive enough that most of the U.S. companies involved in chemical recycling end up turning the end product into a fuel used to power incinerators.
Infinite Recycling with Gasification
VTT has apparently modified traditional gasification to create its patent-pending recycling process. Without getting too technical, gasification breaks waste plastics down into hydrocarbons and olefins. VTT’s process apparently produces molecules of both pharmaceutical and food-grade quality. In addition, VTT claims they can do this an infinite number of times without any loss of quality.
The Institute also claims that they can scale their process affordably. They are convinced that Olefy Technologies will be able to transform virtually any kind of plastic into virgin-grade material and make good money doing so. Will they succeed? Time will tell.
Clean and Separated Plastics
If we had to guess, the two biggest issues Olefy will run into is product purity and separation. We can use our own business model to illustrate why. If you are a regular Seraphim Plastics customer, you know we require that all plastics we pick up be clean and separated.
If we had to clean and separate plastics ourselves, we couldn’t run our business profitably. Cleaning and separating requires manual labor that only adds to the price of recycled plastics for manufacturers. If the price climbs too high, they will not buy. If they don’t buy, we go out of business.
Likewise, it is hard to imagine that Olefy could make a go of it without establishing the same requirements. Any plastics they purchase will likely have to be cleaned and separated by customers prior to pick up. The plastics will have to be free of contamination and separated by type. At least that’s our assumption.
A Revolution – If It Works
What VTT is proposing with Olefy will revolutionize chemical plastic recycling – if it works. That’s the kicker. Remember that gasification is not a new process. It isn’t something that VTT came up with on their own. Their process is based on gasification, but they have modified it to meet their needs.
Assuming Olefy delivers as promised, will that mean an end to mechanical recycling? Probably not. We could see a situation where mechanical recycling is preferred until plastics reach end-of-life. Then they would go to chemical recycling to be transformed into virgin-grade materials. Let’s see what happens with Olefy first.