Written by Callum Gibson - Conference Producer
Foam Expo and Adhesives & Bonding Expo Europe
On 28 September, a selection of experts came together to discuss the topic of end-of-life options for polymer materials in our latest webinar attended by more than 350 peers from the foam and adhesives industries. Speakers included senior technical representatives from Hirsch Porocell, Polystyvert, and VAUDE Sport.
The moderator, Clément Affholder the Manager of Innovation Materials and Plastics Engineering at Vaude Sport GmbH, was able to provide context as to the importance of the discussion. He referenced the European Union (EU) climate action plan that was announced in 2020 which enforced a strategy for the phasing out of single use plastics. The plan is designed to reduce plastic waste and increase to proportion of recycled content in plastic packaging.
Clément also referred to the proposed taxation on non-virgin plastics which could lead to the supply chain paying more if they do not implement circular economy initiatives. He explained “the new legislation coming up acts as a strong incentive for every company to start working on end-of-life of their product and to develop new and better circulatory options”.
To help Clément explore the options available, he was joined by Alex Doskocil the Development Manager for Hirsch Porozell. Alex is also a representative of the association for European Manufacturers of Expanded Polystyrene (EUMEPS). The second panellist is Solenne Brouard Gaillot the Founder and CEO of Polystyvert Inc. Both are well versed in the life cycle of expanded polystyrene and were able to bring their knowledge to the conversation.
Alex explained that certain end user verticals were a larger focus than others for recycling initiatives. He cited the example of construction and insulation, for these markets the life cycle of the material is much longer than for packaging applications. A piece of insulation could be used for many years without being changed.
For construction the emphasis then becomes about insuring a long and effective life cycle from polymer materials. For the packaging market however, there is a higher demand for effective recycling as the life cycle is far shorter. If a consumer buys a new refrigerator the packaging is disposed of as soon as it arrives.
Material design and development
The experts explained the EPS can be recycled efficiently providing that the material is not contaminated. There are two key methods of EPS recycling (chemical and mechanical) which Solenne outlines in her answers to audience questions below this blog. Both have their merits however they are dependent on the state of the material. Packaging is often colourful and has labels added to help market the product for purchase.
While this is useful for selling the item, the complexity of the packaging makes the recycling process more time consuming and harder to achieve optimal results. If the polymer is coloured, it can lead to non-white non-virgin material which is often not what end users have specified. The less labelling, colouring or additive (such as flame retardants) involved in the EPS the easier it is to break down without having to sperate the polymer.
As Alex explained “the cleaner to product, the less substances mixed with the product the easier it is for us to recycle”. Solenne agreed with this approach and suggested that consideration of circular economy needed to start during the design process. Simplifying design is a great way to improve the efficiency of end-of-life innovations.
Material collection and separation
Solenne’s work with the recycling process for EPS has given her great insight into the collection and separation schemes in place in different parts of the world. In both Europe and Canada there is work needed to secure high volume of feedstock, EPS packaging for consumers ends up being mixed in with other waste streams. Solenne explains “the feedstock is very fragmented, there are small amounts of feedstock in different places”, what is needed is a centralised collection area for consumer waste. The recycling must be effectively separated from other materials.
Solenne points out “there is a high degree of contamination such as other plastics, carboard, metal.” The act of separating out these materials into different streams is not only time consuming but resource intensive. This raises the question of environmental impact; at what point does the separation process contribute more to carbon emissions than the recycling process itself? This must become a sight of innovation and something governments must collaborate on with private businesses to improve.
There are certainly success stories where recycling initiatives have been implemented and these should be seen as hopeful examples of what can be achieved. Alex points out that where recycling has been able to excel are industrial sights where goods are shipped and unpacked onsite. Packaging from automotive components, for example, are shipped from a supplier to an OEM assembly site. Here the waste can easily be collected in high volume.
There is far less chance of contamination during this process as it is not mixed with consumer waste, and it is easier to collect as it does not need to be separated. If this process can be replicated for consumer waste collection the results would be immense and would vastly improve the efficiency of recycling infrastructure.
The discussion showed that while there are many challenges to be overcome, the implementation of circular economy is indeed underway. With collaboration between government and private business materials can be collected and recycled. For companies looking at their end-of-life options it all starts with the design of a product, reducing the use of colours, additives and labels goes a long way in protecting the environment.
Making these small changes not only helps to protect the planet but also to remain inline with regulation. To echo Clément’s assertion at the start of the webinar, there is strong incentive for every company to begin making these changes.
If you were not able to attend the webinar or would like to recommend it to a colleague, you can watch it on demand here.
Registration is free for the in-person Foam Expo Europe and Adhesives & Bonding Conference 9-11 November in Stuttgart, Germany. You can register for your pass here.
Don’t miss Day 1 of the conference which is devoted to Industry Resilience & Sustainability.
Given the high volume of questions during the webinar, Solenne was kind enough to answer more of them below:
Solenne Brouard Gaillot, Founder and CEO, Polystyvert Inc.
Could you please summarise the difference between chemical and mechanical recycling?
Each technology has advantages and disadvantages. Plastic waste represents a complex, global issue. Different technologies will be required to achieve our common and ambitious recycling goal.
Mechanical recycling is the most affordable in terms of cost. It already works great on relatively clean feedstock and there is no reason to change that. However, more advanced technologies are required to process more contaminated feedstocks, especially with chemical contaminants such as pigments or flame retardants.
Dissolution is a process halfway between mechanical recycling and chemical recycling. Even though dissolution is more expensive than mechanical recycling, it remains significantly more affordable than depolymerization processes. But its greatest advantage is being able to apply very elaborate purification processes. Dissolution can accept very contaminated feedstock (pigments, graphite, flame retardants, etc.) and obtain a particularly pure recycled polymer.
The product obtained by mechanical recycling or by dissolution is PS. It is therefore not necessary to return to a polymerization reactor. This makes the technology the shortest loop and therefore the best way to reduce GHGs.
Depolymerization is expensive in terms of OPEX and CAPEX, but it allows a flexibility that other technologies do not offer. In fact, the product obtained by depolymerization is styrene monomer, which can be used for any polymer such as PS, SBS, SAN, ABS or others. So, this technology is not limited to the PS market.
The recycling methods for expanded polystyrene today, what can be taken and learned from by the manufacturers and users of other polymer materials?
From my perspective, the big lesson from PS recycling is that nothing is impossible. I speak on a very personal basis. 10 years ago, when I created Polystyvert I heard comments like "It is impossible to recycle the PS because recycling technologies do not work on the PS" or "There is no point in focusing on this material because the volumes are too low” and, “PS recycling cannot be profitable”. 10 years later, it has been proven that all these claims were wrong. Several technologies have emerged allowing the recycler the luxury of choosing their preferred method. The collection and sorting channels have been structured (it's not over yet, but the situation has improved tremendously over the past 10 years), and profitability has been demonstrated through the optimization of technologies and with the help of plastic taxes. So, for other materials, there is room for optimism. The challenges are certainly great, but so are the ambitions. We must not let go, focus on the goal, and implement the means to achieve it.
You have given very interesting insights for Europe and North America, what does circular economy look like globally in places such as Asia and South America?
Asia is the world's largest plastic producing region. And Asia's growth rate, even though it has slowed, remains higher than that of Western countries. Responding to demand therefore remains the priority of producers for the moment. Recycling is emerging and it is also growing. But it is still a fraction of the amount of plastic on the market. Recycled products are perceived to be of lower quality and their only perceived advantage and lower costs.
In addition, Asian governments, while they have a great appetite for clean tech, have not yet gotten to the point of putting regulations in place. This helps keep recycling in a fairly weak position.
However, in the medium term, these countries will also have to reorient their priority because the consequences of pollution are increasingly problematic. There are a lot of exciting prospects for clean tech and recycled materials in Asia.
As for South America, it is struggling with economic and political problems that do not make it fertile ground for clean tech or recycling. Yet people are aware of environmental problems because they are confronted with pollution. There is a real interest in more environmentally friendly processes, but the means to implement them are lacking at the moment.
What role can European SMEs play in circular economy? What advice would you give them in managing their recycling programs?
Today there are markets for recycling most of the waste. Especially in Europe where regulations are strong and allow the emergence of recycling technology better than elsewhere in the world. SMEs therefore have everything to gain by looking for recyclers. In many cases they will be able to sell their waste, in others it will be collected free of charge. This search for a recycling service provider can thus enable them to avoid disposal costs.
In addition, consumers are increasingly asking for products that are recycled or with recycled content. Particularly for the SMEs which operate in B2C, it is more and more possible to gain market share by displaying the environmental characteristics of its products. This can go through the implementation of a "clean procurement" process or through programs to integrate recycled content into the products or through the management of the end of life of the products (recovery program).