Current Practices and Future Prospects in plastic recycling

June 1st, 2023

Hear from Kimberly Clark on the Nappy Loop recycling project; Qenos on advanced recycling; and what’s happening in the National Plastic Recycling Scheme. Download a PDF copy of the presentations given at the Symposium here:

The Nappy Loop Project, led by Kimberly-Clark Australia, aims to address the issue of the estimated 1.5 billion disposable nappies ending up in Australian landfills annually. In collaboration with CSIRO, Peats Soils and Garden Supplies, Solo Resource Recovery, and G8 Education, the trial has been underway in South Australia since July 2022. Laboratory and field-scale trials demonstrated successful separation of the super-absorbent polymer (SAP) from other nappy components. The project team has effectively showcased anaerobic digestion as a viable option for converting the organic materials in used nappies into nutrient-rich compost, as well as bioenergy. Since the pilot began over 4 tonnes of soiled nappies have been collected and recycled. Future steps involve evaluating scaling opportunities, assessing the safety of separated SAP for compost, and exploring dry separation for plastic recycling. This pioneering project offers a promising solution to the environmental challenges of nappy waste disposal in Australia.

Australia aims to transition a circular plastics economy and has set out its strategy in the National Plastics Plan, which includes among others a ban on waste plastic exports and a 20% recycled content by 2025 for plastic packaging. Whilst investment in mechanical recycling is increasing to meet this target and recycle plastic waste domestically, it is not be able to fully address household soft plastic waste and mixed plastics that are ending up in landfill, representing approximately 60% al bl plastics packaging placed on the market. Advanced recycling through pyrolysis can break down mixed plastics predominantly based on polyethylene and polypropylene into hydrocarbons that can be a feedstock for new plastic production. Through an upgrading process this so-called pyrolysis oil can be transformed into naphtha, which is the basic platform chemical to produce nearly all man-made plastics through steam cracking into monomers such as ethylene and propylene and subsequent polymerisation. The paper will detail the global state and scale of this technology, its environmental impact and how it can address plastics circularity in Australia.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is now recognized as a method for measuring the environmental impacts of products, processes, and services. It provides a scientifically sound method of comparing products and processes on common grounds and to identify so called “hot spots” for reducing environmental impacts. A simplified set of indicators can be introduced as ECWW or energy, carbon-dioxide, water, and waste footprint of products to determine its environmental sustainability performance. There are several LCA software packages such as SimaPro, GaBi, and OpenLCA, databases and international standards available. A review was published and a preliminary life cycle inventory (LCI) database has been developed for advanced recycling technologies, including pyrolysis and gasification. We have used this LCI to model the impacts of pyrolysis and gasification for plastic recycling in Australia. The holistic impacts of Australia’s plastic waste management system, if advanced recycling technologies are integrated into existing infrastructure, will also be evaluated.

  • National Plastic Recycling Scheme – Justin Frank (AFGC)

The National Plastics Recycling Scheme (NPRS) project – developed by Australia’s food and grocery manufacturing industry – will establish the largest Australian industry-led plastics recycling scheme, by taking hard-to-recycle soft plastic packaging out of waste streams and reusing it. The NPRS will make it easier to recycle soft plastics at home: through the disposal of soft plastic packaging via purpose-made bags that go into kerb-side bins, enabling the recycling of the plastic into food grade soft plastics. This will facilitate the creation of a new Australian advanced recycling industry – a circular plastics loop and cleaner recycling streams for all materials, including paper and cardboard. The NPRS unites brand owners, manufacturers, recyclers, and consumers in one powerful, nationwide scheme, transforming our soft plastics problems into circular solutions. Justin Frank will give an overview of this circular economy, the value chain, trial insights, scheme design, extended producer responsibility, governance, eco-modulated fee structure and next steps

Planetary Health is quickly becoming the future focus for humanity, with overflowing landfills, marine pollution and over consumption of plastics key issues. The fundamental problem causing pollution is us ! We create ‘waste’ by discarding materials.  To eliminate material ‘waste’ and prevent pollution we need radical collaboration and sustained action to create circular solutions for all communities. Plasticology is the study of plastics as a material, the impact of mismanaging plastics and how we can transform waste to resources through a value-based system and by working together.

Plastics have been revolutionary in numerous sectors, and many of the positive attributes of modern life can be attributed to their use. However, plastics are often treated only as disposable commodities, which has led to the ever-increasing accumulation of plastic and plastic by-products in the environment as waste, and an unacceptable growth of microplastic and nanoplastic pollution. The catchphrase “plastics are everywhere”, perhaps once seen as extolling the virtues of plastics, is now seen by most as a potential or actual threat. Scientists are confronting this environmental crisis, both by developing recycling methods to deal with the legacy of plastic waste, and by highlighting the need to develop and implement effective whole-of-life strategies in the future use of plastic materials. The importance and topicality of this subject are evidenced by the dramatic increase in the use of terms such as “whole of life”, “life-cycle assessment”, “circular economy” and “sustainable polymers” in the scientific and broader literature. Fully effective solutions, however, are still to be forthcoming.

Advanced Recycling processes offer a path to sustainable hydrocarbon lifecyles. Pyrolysing plastics back to oil is a simple process that has established a significant global footprint. Pyrolysis shoe-horns currently ‘unrecycleable’ post-use polyolefins back into established industries, thereby displacing conventional feedstocks. This is appropriate as fossil hydrocarbon feedstocks, suffer both an existential horizon due to the need to cease fossil carbon mining, as well as a number of security of supply issues. As a market-ready technology it demands targeted niche innovations to deliver better outcomes. Market development in Australia is delayed but is accelerating. The industry is at a critical juncture, heading to either a sophisticated, local circular economy or to a primary waste industry refining plastic to a raw material for export. CSIRO’s efforts are aligned to high-value ends, delivering process design experience, ensuring high-value end uses for recycled products and developing data instruments for an efficient post-use plastics market.