The future of plastics recycling might be taking shape outside an abandoned lumber warehouse in Akron.
That's where Polyflow Corp. has been testing a process that can convert plastic and rubber scrap into feedstock chemicals.
``Contamination doesn't matter,'' said Joseph Hensel, chief executive officer of Akron-based Polyflow. ``We can use carpet, tires, children's toys, leftover compounds, polystyrene foam. Just about anything else you can think of.''
Previous methods of making chemicals from recycled plastics or rubber tires have been criticized because the energy needed to depolymerize the waste matches or exceeds any environmental savings produced by the overall process. But Hensel said a fully operational Polyflow plant will provide about 90 percent of its own energy needs.
``We've proven that the chemistry works,'' Hensel said. ``Now we have to prove that the economics work.''
The technology used by Polyflow was developed in the late 1970s by Charles Grispin, an Akron-area inventor who now serves as Polyflow's chief information officer. Hensel, who has more than 30 years of plastics industry experience, believes the technology has value to plastics processors and petrochemicals firms as well as local governments looking for cost-effective ways to deal with waste plastics.
Only 6 percent of the waste items used by Polyflow currently are recycled, according to Hensel. The remaining 94 percent otherwise would end up in landfills.
``There was no interest in this [technology] when oil was low enough in price and landfill space was plentiful,'' Grispin said during a recent demonstration of the process. ``Now we've got a chance to make a difference in the environmental history of the planet.''
In the process, scrap is placed into a tank and cooked at nearly 1,000° F until vaporized. The vapor is then condensed; the resulting liquid contains aromatic chemicals including styrene and benzene.
The process yields product on a ratio of roughly 70 percent. In other words, 130,000 tons of plastic and rubber waste input would yield roughly 90,000 tons of industrial product.
The scrap mixture needed to produce such results consists of 80 percent polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene in roughly equal parts with the other 20 percent coming from rubber or from nylon or other specialty plastics.
Chemicals refined from the slurry liquid can be reused by petrochemical firms or used in paints, coatings, solvents or other products, said Hensel, who has been working full time on the project since 2005.
Since January, Polyflow has been performing test runs of the process on a batch system located on a flatbed trailer. The trailer is parked outside a former lumber warehouse that is being leased by the city of Akron. The warehouse also serves as a storage space for products to be recycled, including electronic parts, toys, shredded tires and plastic tarps from construction sites.
The next step for Polyflow will be to raise $8.5 million for a larger-scale pilot plant to be built in northeast Ohio. Hensel said he hopes such a plant will be up and running in 2009.
The project also has attracted the endorsement of former PolyOne Corp. Chief Executive Officer Phillip Ashkettle and Frank Kelley, dean emeritus of the department of polymer engineering at the University of Akron. Both are advisers for the firm.
In a recent interview, Kelley said Polyflow ``has a viable process.''
``They've well exceeded the break-even point for making money by making aromatics,'' said Kelley, who was asked to check out the process by the Summit County Solid Waste Authority.
Others involved with Polyflow include investors Jay Schabel, a regional entrepreneur serving as chief operating officer, and Dick Schwarz, an industrial chemist with 30 years of experience, including 20 years with PPG Industries Inc. of Pittsburgh.
Polyflow wants to license its technology and plant design to other firms.
``We're confident the plant can be scaled up we're essentially running at scale now,'' Hensel said. ``Right now, there's enough scrap in the Cleveland/Akron area alone for five commercial plants.''