Advanced Recycling: Turning Plastic Waste into Resources

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Advanced recycling technologies could turn problematic plastic waste destined for landfill into valuable resources, according to a new report by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency.

The report, Advanced recycling technologies to address Australia’s plastic waste, which was released today, evaluates the ways to convert plastic waste that can’t be recycled with existing methods, into new resources to build Australia’s circular economy.

It is estimated that 130,000 tonnes of plastic leaks into the Australian marine environment each year. Less than 12 per cent of plastic waste is recycled and about 85 per cent ends up in landfill.

Advanced recycling technologies can help process hard to recycle plastics.

Advanced recycling of plastic waste, also referred to as feedstock, molecular, or chemical recycling, converts plastic waste into its chemical building blocks and back into plastic, or other useful resources such as fuel.

CSIRO researcher Ms Sarah King said with new waste plastic export rules in place, new technologies were critical to support the increased recovery and recycling of plastics.

“Advanced recycling technologies could turn hard-to-recycle plastics, such as mixed, multi-layer, flexible or contaminated plastics back into food grade recycled plastics or other products through chemical, thermal or biological processes,” Ms King said.

“It is suitable for flexible or soft ‘scrunchable’ plastics used for food packaging, such as food pouches and chocolate wrappers. When collected, these types of plastics may be contaminated with food, or mixed with other materials so currently can’t be recycled.

“Advanced recycling could process this plastic waste to increase opportunities for the polymer manufacturing and waste sectors by supporting new industries. The North American market is estimated at $120 billion, demonstrating there is economic potential for adopting advanced recycling in Australia.”

Australia has set a national target of 70 per cent of plastic packaging recycled or composted by 2025, and 80 per cent average recovery rate from all waste streams by 2030.

Chemistry Australia’s Director for Strategy, Energy and Research Peter Bury, who collaborated with CSIRO on the report, said advanced recycling is an important and complementary technology able to progress an Australian plastics circular economy.

“Mechanical recycling methods are our foundation technologies and very effective for a range of well-sorted plastics used for food and other packaging. Advanced recycling can sit alongside these to further strengthen Australia’s recycling capabilities for plastics that can’t be processed through existing channels,” Mr Bury said.

“Australia already has the critical industrial capability in polymer manufacturing, steam crackers, and refineries, to integrate advanced recycling outputs to produce new polymers. Importantly, we have the talented and skilled people in place to introduce and develop this additional technology.”

The report and opportunities to adopt advanced recycling technologies are key parts of CSIRO’s developing Ending Plastic Waste Mission to achieve an 80 per cent reduction of plastic pollution entering the Australian environment by 2030.

“Our report aims to build awareness of advanced recycling technologies, how they apply to different plastic types, and the key factors to enable adoption and scale up of these technologies in Australia,” CSIRO’s Ms King said.

“Plastic pollution and waste are challenges we need to solve. Advanced recycling will improve the recovery, recycling, and reuse of materials, consistent with a circular economy.”

The report was produced in consultation with Chemistry Australia, Lyondell Basell and Qenos

Read the report: https://www.csiro.au/-/media/News-releases/2021/Advanced-recycling-report/21-00312_REPORT_AdvancedRecycling_WEB.pdf   

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