A trade group best known for representing mechanical recyclers of plastics is broadening scope to include in-depth study of chemical recycling and how that fits into overall plastics recycling.
The Association of Plastic Recyclers is forming a Chemical Recycling Research Working Group it said will focus "on identifying the key steps needed for chemical recycling processes to play an effective role in the recycling of plastic products."
The working group will be co-chaired by a representative of Eastman Chemical Co., a long-time APR member that earlier this year announced plans for a massive chemical recycling facility for plastics in Tennessee.
And, now, some background: Plastics recycling has, by far, relied on so-called mechanical recycling to capture, process and reuse resin while keeping the material a polymer throughout the process. Think separation, grinding, cleaning and reprocessing to create recycled resin by relying on machinery.
Chemical recycling, on the other hand, uses processes that transform plastics back into monomers that can then be used to make like-new plastic.
APR, which calls itself "the Voice of Plastics Recycling," has grown to the point where this is now time to look beyond traditional mechanical recycling, President and CEO Steve Alexander said. With growing interest in chemical recycling, the trade group wants to have a say.
"We want to lay out the path of how can this actually work and where does it work and how can it be economically sustainable. For once and for all, you have a very understandable document that says this is how we can make it work," Alexander said about the working group's future efforts.
"What is chemical recycling? Where is the supply? What are the economics? What is the impact on climate? If we can answer those four things as well as the logistics issue, I think everybody goes, 'We have a lot of faith in the fact that chemical recycling can work and this is how it can work,'" he said.
Throughout a discussion, Alexander was very deliberate in using words "chemical recycling" when talking.
Some chemical recycling technologies have been around for a very long time, he said. So he has a problem with those who are now calling that approach "advanced recycling."
"The concern we have with this nomenclature that has been developed by certain folks is that somehow we have this new technology that's going to solve all the plastics recycling issues and mechanical recycling hasn't worked and this new technology is going to solve the problem," Alexander said. "It creates an adversarial position in my mind.
"I think that just confuses people and it creates this either/or perspective. And I don't think it's beneficial at all. It is what it is: It's chemical recycling," he said.
There is a place, and a need, for both mechanical and chemical processes in the plastics recycling universe, Alexander said Nov. 4. Figuring out a vision that includes both, in a complementary fashion, is the working group's charge.
Alexander sees a broad-based research effort including material recovery facilities, manufacturers, recyclers and brands.
Ultimately, he said, chemical recycling and mechanical recycling both have a place in plastics reuse. The goal is to find the right pathways.
APR membership already includes companies involved in chemical recycling.
"At the end of the day we are going to be recycling material both chemically and mechanically," Alexander said. "In our minds, chemical recycling is here to stay, so how do we make it work and make sure it does what it purports to do?
"We firmly believe that chemical recycling must play a major role in solving that issue, the issue of sustainability for plastic packaging. We are the recyclers. We think we have a say in that," Alexander said.
The working group is being co-chaired by Carl Williams, technical associate at Eastman, and Greg Janson, CEO of Granite Peak Plastics, a recycler based in St. Louis.
Eastman is building a $250 million recycling plant to chemical recycling in Kingsport, Tenn. The site, using methanolysis, will be the one of the world's largest plastic-to-plastic molecular recycling facilities, the company said. Planned capacity is 110,000 tons per year of post-consumer PET, including used carpet and packaging. Methanolysis uses heat, pressure and methanol to transform PET into dimethyl terephthalate and ethylene glycol.
Eastman expects the facility to be constructed by the end of next year.
Specific goals of the working group include identification of specific materials better suited for either chemical or mechanical recycling; development of model bale specifications; and identification of material applications, APR said.
Other goals include "detailing steps to ensure chemical recycling does not result in packaging manufacturers disregarding design for recycling guidelines," and a review of the economic feasibility of chemical recycling.
APR also will research sortation, transportation, location and "other logistical challenges relative to the stated volume requirements of chemical recycling," the group said.