Why is a new plastics recycling technology so vital?
Plastics are incredibly versatile materials, that have improved our lives immeasurably.
They keep our food fresh, are shatterproof, lightweight, and so much of modernized medicine depends on them.
And, when you look at revolutionary technologies like the smartphones we hold in our hands today, they’re only possible because of plastics.
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But, when we no longer want them or can’t use them again, that’s when plastics can become a problem.
To help tackle plastic waste, we’ve put our know-how into developing a new recycling technology that will allow polyester plastics to be recycled again and again, reducing the amount that is disposed of as waste.
What’s BP’s solution?
It’s a technology that can process polyester plastics, including items that are currently difficult-to-recycle, which is often those coloured plastics used for bottles and food trays.
We call it BP Infinia and it can transform those sorts of plastics back into new, virgin-quality feedstocks ready to make new polyester plastic items.
At scale, we’ve worked out that this technology may offer the potential to divert billions1 of coloured bottles and food trays made from polyethylene terephthalate – or PET, a type of plastic – away from landfill and incineration.
What happens to this type of plastic at the moment?
In some cases, these plastics get ‘downcycled’ and used in different applications, to make different kinds of things.
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So, take a coloured polyester bottle, for example.
That bottle might be recycled once, but currently that means grinding it down mechanically into flakes used to make fibres that are turned into something like carpeting – with that carpet ultimately going to landfill or incineration.
The beauty of our new technology is that really difficult-to-recycle polyester waste can now be processed in a way that allows it to be turned into that same item again, or something of similar quality.
The aim is to allow this to happen again and again, which is why we’ve called it BP Infinia.
The potential to improve the amount of plastics recycled is huge.
We’ve looked at current PET recycling rates and estimate that only 12% of all bottles that are collected globally become new bottles again, even though more than 75% are recycled into new products2.
What’s BP’s motivation to get involved?
We’re keen to support the move to a circular economy, where everything is kept in a closed-loop system and waste is vastly reduced.
At the moment, the world’s economy is mostly linear, where assumptions are based on a constant supply of natural resources, resulting in things being made, used once and thrown away.
We want to see plastics kept in the loop and used again and again.
What’s the science behind this technology?
It’s what’s called depolymerization technology – it takes the very long chains of molecules, or polymers, that plastics are made from and breaks them back down into the original small ‘monomer’ molecules that are the building blocks for the polymers.
So, a black polyester tray, carpet or bottle can be put into our process and be transformed into recycled building blocks, which can be used to manufacture new products without any loss in quality.
Those products can be recycled repeatedly and become the feedstocks for new polyester plastics – that means extracting fossil-based resources to make them is avoided.
How did the technology emerge?
We’ve always prided ourselves on having some of the best scientists in the world. In the 1950s, our people invented a process for purifying terephthalic acid, or PTA, which is one of the main source materials that go into making PET plastics today. We’re building on that expertise to improve the recycling of plastics and have been making dramatic advances in the past few years.
What are the next steps for this technology?
We have just announced a $25 million investment in a pilot plant in our Aromatics technology headquarters in Naperville, US, where we will prove the technology on a continuous basis.
Naperville is outside Chicago and is where this technology was developed.
We are putting considerable resources and some of our best people on this project, so we can move it forward quickly and then look to start building a commercial unit.
BP announced it would join forces with a number of companies to accelerate this technology – why is a consortium necessary?
Our technology is just one link in the circular recycling loop I just talked about.
You also need to collect and sort the waste, for example, then supply our recycled feedstock to companies that make new products from it.
That’s why BP is working with big players (see ‘consortium’ box) to create a value chain thatcan accelerate the commercialization of the technology – and the outcome we all want to see, which is much more polyester plastic getting recycled.
How exciting is this technology for you personally?
It’s exciting for the whole BP team; we feel really privileged to have technology that could be a game-changer in the industry.
But, I also have a personal interest in seeing this technology work.
There was a day not long ago when I was taking my daughter to school and we were talking about the problem of plastics in our oceans.
Then in the afternoon, I was talking to our technologists about what our technology can deliver.
It was a pivotal moment for me to realize that we could actually help solve this plastics waste problem that we hear and care about so much.
In late-December 2019, leading companies in the polyester packaging value chain, including BP, announced the formation of a new consortium to help address plastic waste by accelerating how quickly the BP Infinia enhanced recycling technology becomes a commercial reality. They are:
- Packaging and recycling specialist ALPLA.
- Food, drink and consumer goods producers Britvic, Danone and Unilever.
- Waste management and recycling specialist REMONDIS.
- And BP.
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