The world is literally swimming in waste plastic. We produce around 300 million tons of the stuff a year, of which a mere 9% gets recycled. The rest ends up in landfills, oceans and inside poor creatures who mistake it for food (and usually die). So what to do? Well there may be a real hope on the horizon. A Finnish company called Olefy Technology claims that after 40 years of development and testing it can now recycle almost any type of plastic back to virgin quality an infinite number of times. With minimal need for pre-sorting. Too good to be true?
We had a chat with Matti Nieminen, Principal Scientist at developer VTT in Helsinki. He explained a little more about the patented technology.
“The Olefy process is a special type of gasification,” he explained, “It has a minor by-product of methane, but we feed that back into the system as an energy source. We also have a completely carbon neutral model of the technology which is powered by carbon neutral electricity, but this is more expensive to operate.”
A key feature of the new process is the fact that the recycled plastic is returned to it’s original ‘virgin’ state, which means it’s is completely food and medical safe, and can be recycled again and again. If this is true, then it could be a genuine game changer for the planet. The process works by feeding the plastic into a relatively high temperature reactor which starts to break down the material. The reaction is stopped after 2 seconds by rapid cooling, after which the olefinic components can be extracted from the gas that’s created. The system has been designed to work alongside existing steam cracking plants, thereby lowering energy requirements.
Because the plastic waste is recovered in a single pass, it replaces the need to use naptha from crude oil, which is the usual way to make plastic. Every 1000 kgs of plastic which is recovered back to a virgin state from waste saves around 5000 kgs of crude oil, which has a massive impact on keeping fossil fuel in the ground. The developers are also confident the process can be scaled up to large recycling plants, and because the process is not fussy about the mix or quality of the input plastic, it could even be used for recovering older plastic from landfills and oceans.
The company is currently talking to investors and potential licensees of the technology for world wide deployment. Now this would seem to be a much better use of the billions of dollars currently being wasted on ineffective carbon capture technology.