Feature Story Clean Energy & Ocean Solutions

Developing Ways to Make Plastics Go 'Round and 'Round

June 8, 2020

There’s an inconvenient truth we all must confront: Earth has limited natural resources and they’re becoming scarcer each day. Though eco-friendly products and waste-recycling technologies have been around for decades, we need to significantly reduce and moderate our resource consumption going forward.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, land degradation caused by climate change and pollution is already costing the global economy USD 40 billion annually. There is genuine concern that land fit for habitation, agriculture, and industry will become scarce if the issue does not get addressed immediately. Moreover, competition for dwindling resources is bound to escalate.

Improved recycling technology is vital in a circular economy

That’s why sustainability is more important than ever. Hanwha Solutions’ Chemical Division (formerly known as Hanwha Chemical) believes adopting a circular economy will help to address this pressing situation. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation posits that a properly implemented circular economy could reduce primary material consumption in industries such as automotive manufacturing, construction, and electricity production by up to 32% by 2030.

To help make this possible, Hanwha Solutions is developing recycling capabilities that will use limited resources sustainably and efficiently.

Making recycling more efficient

Hanwha Solutions is developing recycling technologies that will give plastics a new lease on life

The company’s primary research is focused on using pyrolysis, which induces thermal decomposition of materials at elevated temperatures. When applied to plastics, pyrolysis breaks down their long-chain structures and turns them back into their original chemical monomers that can then be reused to produce new plastics.

Presently, the use of pyrolysis in plastics recycling is limited. This is because it requires a complex series of decomposition reactions to occur. Also, current pyrolysis technology generates material that can only be used to produce low-grade combustibles like diesel fuel and boiler fuel.

For this reason, Hanwha Solutions’ R&D team is working to improve the quality and yield of the recycled material produced through pyrolysis. To achieve this, the team is looking at ways to apply petrochemical catalyst technology to existing pyrolysis techniques.

Tackling a difficult task

Take, for example, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a material used widely in everyday life, from pipes and flooring to home furnishings and toys. Unfortunately, PVC is difficult to recycle, especially if it’s bonded with other materials.

That’s why Hanwha Solutions is developing a process to recycle materials like PVC-coated wallpaper, which is commonly rejected at recycling plants. The problem is two-fold. Firstly, separating PVC from wallpaper pulp using current technology is difficult. Secondly, it’s costly because the PVC is bonded with plasticizers and other additives that need to be removed chemically before recycling can begin.

To address this, Hanwha Solutions is developing new separation techniques to remove the PVC from the pulp before using selective solvent extraction to remove plasticizers and additives bonded to the PVC.

Giving plastics a new lease on life

The commercialization of reliable and affordable PVC-recycling technology like this will be a game changer in environmental sustainability. It will stop millions of tons of PVC from entering the waste stream to be dumped or incinerated.

The European Union considers PVC pollution to be such a pressing issue that it launched VinylPlus, a dedicated PVC-recycling program, in 2011. The program has made good headway, with nearly 740,000 metric tons of PVC being recycled in Europe in 2018. VinylPlus is now aiming to get European PVC recycling to exceed 1 million metric tons per year by 2030.

The development of reliable and affordable plastics recycling technology will have a transformative effect on the world. Plastics that would be discarded, or incinerated as combustible fuels, will find their lifespans extended. This solution will reduce the need to extract oil and gas from derricks and wells.

To make this possible, Hanwha Solutions will continue researching creative and scientific methods that will make best use of the Earth’s limited natural resources while minimizing any adverse impact on the environment.