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Two of the world's top acrylic resin suppliers, Imperial Chemical Industries plc and Mitsubishi Rayon Co. Ltd., have signed a research contract to jointly develop acrylic recycling technology.

ICI Acrylics, based in Brussels, Belgium, and Tokyo-based MRC plan to come up with an efficient system for retrieving waste acrylic, chemically breaking it down into monomer components and repolymerizing the material.

Until now each partner has been following its own technology route and has carried out limited recycling operations.

ICI, the world's largest producer of methyl methacrylate, recovers about 22 million pounds out of the 661 million pounds of acrylic devoted to sheet and other plastics applications.

London-based ICI produces 1.32 billion pounds of acrylic worldwide, with about half used in products such as paints and inks, according to Scott Davidson, ICI Acrylics' chief executive officer.

He predicted a huge potential for recycling technology and suggested that as much as 15 percent of all acrylic plastic used globally may be recycled within 10 years.

One motive for the partnership was the rising awareness of environmental problems caused by waste plastics, according to MRC, Asia's top acrylic producer, which ranks third in the world among MMA producers.

Acrylic is among few commodity resins that can be depolymerized efficiently in a pure form into its original monomer, according to ICI.

Davidson, in a telephone interview from Brussels, added that the resulting recycled monomer is cheaper to use than virgin MMA. He said that the polymer's characteristics give those involved in the area a competitive advantage over producers of other resins in recycling.

``One of the major thrusts of this is to grow the world of acrylics,'' he said. He added that the venture is also ``excellent [public relations] for acrylics.''

The two companies will develop a technology capable of handling all types of acrylic waste, including material used in products such as bathtubs that have glass-fiber backing, and in large outdoor thermoformed signs that sometimes have PVC components, according to Davidson.

No specific time frame for the collaboration has been set, but Davidson suggested that initial work would last perhaps three to four years.

He added that the joint study could open up further opportunities for cooperation in research and development.

The joint work will take place largely at ICI's main research and development center at Wilton, England. ICI does not foresee the project creating any new jobs at Wilton or at its U.S. research center in Memphis, Tenn.