We live in a throwaway society. Food, clothes, electronics, and iPhones are all traded in regularly for newer, trendier, smarter goods. But the stark reality of living like that is coming back to haunt us all. When we throw something away, it simply becomes someone else’s problem. It has to go somewhere.
In the case of plastic waste, INEOS believes that has to change - and it has a very clear vision of how it can be done. But it cannot do it alone.
"We are working with recyclers and our customers to enable plastics to be recycled and incorporated into new products," said Peter Williams, Group Technology Director.
In 2000 Australian organisers buckled under pressure from environmental groups and banned PVC from the Sydney Olympics. The material was effectively labelled a public menace.
Almost 20 years on, PVC has more than proved it is a material fit for the 21st century.
As a result, the material, which can withstand pouring rain, raging seas and blazing sunshine, is heavily used in the construction industry and makes a massive contribution to the world of modern sport.
Every year 640,000 tonnes of PVC are recycled in Europe through the VinylPlus initiative and INEOS anticipates increasing it to 800,000 tonnes by 2020.
Polyolefins – the plastics found in milk bottles, food packaging and medical applications – can also be recycled.
Again INEOS is working with recyclers and customers to find a way of making new grades of plastic that could be blended with recycled material to make reliably a high quality finished product.
“The next step is to better re-use coloured materials to make premium quality products,” said Peter.
But mechanical recycling, as it is known, is limited because each time plastic is recycled it loses some of its quality.
“We are also limited by our ability to be able to recover clean and pure plastic waste,” said Peter.
Where plastic cannot be recycled, we can recover the energy contained in the product.
INEOS does something similar at its plant in Runcorn in the UK.
But INEOS wants something more from the process. Locked inside every shred of plastic are valuable raw materials – essentially hydrocarbons – and INEOS wants them back.
INEOS is now evaluating technologies capable of turning all plastic waste– no matter how contaminated - back into its original raw material so it could be fed back into INEOS’ plants to make new, high quality products.
“The key advantage is that using this approach all plastic waste, even the lowest value mixed waste, can be recycled,” said Peter.
For polystyrene, chemical recycling, as it is known, can be especially effective, because the process causes the polystyrene to de-polymerise, which produces a styrene monomer product that can be fed back into the polymerisation reactor.
“Although it’s early days, and the technical challenges are significant, progress is being made, especially at INEOS Styrolution where recovered monomer liquids are already being tested in our pilot plants,” he said.
Peter said that as well as developing new polymers and new ways of recycling plastics, a large investment is needed by governments around the world in infrastructure for collecting, sorting and managing waste. “To achieve real change in recycling, and also to solve the problem of land and ocean litter, each of us- the chemical industry, governments and other organisations, and the public- all need to play our part.”