As of 2015, approximately 6,300 million metric tons of plastic waste had been generated, of which only 9% had been recycled, 12% had been incinerated, and 79% had accumulated in landfills or been dumped in the ocean according to a study published in Science Advances.
Procter & Gamble uses a lot of plastic in its business, much of it for containers and packaging. Many of those containers are made from polypropylene, an especially tough, long-lasting plastic that is hard to recycle. Even when recycling is attempted, the colors and aromas embedded in the original waste products remain, turning the end product into a gray or black substance that still has a powerful odor to it, which is hardly something other companies are willing to pay good money for.
Working in collaboration with PureCycle Technologies, a subsidiary of Chicago-based Innventure, Procter & Gamble says it has perfected a process that results in recycled polypropylene that is odor-free and snowy white or clear in color — which makes it highly desirable to a range of manufacturers. The process could potentially be adapted to other hard to recycle plastics.
It involves a decontamination and deodorization process that originated in Procter & Gamble’s laboratory that resulted from the company’s desire to use more recycled content in its products and packaging.
“As we were working toward this goal, we discovered that we can remove color contamination and odor from recycled plastics, which opens the door for broad uses of recycled polypropylene and, in time, other plastics like polyethylene (PE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET),” says John Layman, section head of corporate research and development for P&G.
At scale, PureCycle will be able to process more than 105 million pounds of recycled polypropylene every year. “We put a lot of recycled content in our packaging today. And we were wanting to figure out problems involving color, odor and consumer safety,” says Layman.
This new process is a solvent-based, nonchemical one, which has been key to its efficiency. “Chemical processes are usually pyrolysis or depolymerization, meaning you are unzipping plastic molecules back to fundamental building blocks. But we purify, sort and clean using a dissolution process. It’s simpler with fewer steps using less energy to make a more competitive product,” says Layman.
PureCycle will begin a trial of the process at a plant in Ironton, Ohio, this fall and expects to have a commercial-scale facility in operation in 2020, according to Waste 360. There will be an ongoing focus on learning to adapt to changing materials, particularly evolving packaging. PureCycle has received financial backing from the Closed Loop Fund, which invests in circular economy innovations to support recycling.
Mike Otworth, CEO of PureCycle Technologies, says several suppliers and user contracts have already been lined up to provide feedstocks for the process and to buy the end products created. “I think we will see PureCycle in a host of consumer goods, probably automotive and household products of many types. And we expect it will be suitable for food contact grade resin, so I think we will see it in food packaging products,” says Otworth.
“We’d really like to see this technology become a pervasive, enabling technology in the global recycling community. We believe it will take away the limitations [posed by appearance, odor and color] associated with recycled plastics, especially post-consumer. You would be able to largely use recycled resin from any feedstock, no matter how dirty, and be able to manufacture premium products the same as you can from virgin. We’ve shown samples to potential customers. And as far as odor and appearance, it’s largely indistinguishable from virgin resin,” he says.
Kudos to Procter & Gamble for addressing the problem of plastic waste and creating a process that creates a salable end product. It says it wants to see PureCycle roll out across industries, including its competitors.
“We want this to be a force for good, to be able to produce products with greater recycling content and for applications broader than consumer goods. We’d like it to be available for industrial [manufacturers] and other end users,” John Layman says.