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Looking ahead: the economy of scale in auto plastics recycling

Lein Tange, Sustainability Director at ICL head office based in Israel, talks to Auto Recycling World about plastics recycling processes, and where plastics in auto recycling is headed.

 

Looking ahead: the economy of scale in auto plastics recycling p one
Lein Tange

There are more plastics in vehicles today than ever before. What are the main reasons for this, and do you expect this trend to continue?

Plastics reduce a vehicles’ total weight and is a better physical property to handle the electrification of vehicles in a safe way, therefore, demand for this material will only increase in the future.

Does this mean that there is a growing demand for more flame retardant plastics in modern vehicles, and what does this mean for the recycling process?

Yes, the electrification of the car is demanding higher fire safety because the old 12-volt system is now going towards the highly sophisticated 600 V systems, and even higher. For the engineered plastics to be recycled in ‘virgin quality’, innovative plastic recycling technologies are under development using dissolution purification technologies like the CreaSolv® Process.

Looking ahead: the economy of scale in auto plastics recycling p three
Loop-PS recyclate

You have been involved in plastics recycling since 1997. What similarities have you seen in that time between other plastic products and plastics in automobiles? Have you learned from looking at other plastic products, or are there unique challenges for automobile plastics?

There are some similarities between automotive and electronic and electrical equipment (E&E) plastics, and this is ever growing with the electrification of cars within the infrastructure to supply electricity. For example, like charger systems, the quality and variety of used plastics are growing; these also affect the recycled plastics to be used.

The economy of scale is integral when it comes to recycling. Are we at a point where technology and volume can combine to create a genuinely working model? If not, how far away are we? What needs to be done to get to that point and what further challenges may be encountered to reach that point?

To align the value chain, including that of recyclers, it will take time for real scale-ups of engineering plastics to take place. An example is that the PolyStyreneloop Cooperative could be used to align the polystyrene value chain, including Flame Retardant  producers, raw material suppliers, recyclers and collector-waste companies.

To make sorting economically feasible, a certain minimum volume of the different plastics are needed like polypropylene, polycarbonate, ABS and HIPS. It will take time before minimum volumes of a few thousand tonnes annually will be handled per fraction and produce a constant virgin-like quality.

 

There has been much research on plastic recycling in automobiles. To transition and apply that research to become economically viable, what are the processes involved, and what challenges are there? How do you think it could be made easier for companies to adapt their research and the recycling process to be adopted sooner?

The first recommended process is mechanical recycling. Because of quality reasons and a growing amount of restricted substances (the lifetime of a car is typically 17 years or more), this is becoming more of a challenge. Therefore, dissolution purification processes could be an option combined with chemical recycling for leftover plastics fractions in the future.

When it comes to the vehicle recycler, what role do you think they can play, and what do they need to consider when it comes to plastic recycling today and in the future? 

Vehicle recyclers need to have a broad view and realise that the plastics used in today’s cars are different from those from 15-20 years ago. The recyclers need to adapt to the currently used separation processes and adapt their future recycling business by using improved sorting and innovative processes like dissolution purification.

As one of the co-founders, and with 70 members and supporters, ICL Europe, together with the PolyStyreneLoop Coop members, constructed a demoplant  – in the Netherlands where 3300 tonnes of insulation foam containing a restricted additive HBCD is processed annually. The plant successfully started up in September and can separate the polystyrene from the bromine-containing additive. The polystyrene is recycled to virgin quality. The bromine-containing sludge is destroyed at 1100 degrees at ICL, and the bromine is recovered and used to produce a new brominated polymeric flame retardant and used in the same application.

CreaSolv® Technology can also be used for automotive engineering plastics in the near future together with E&E plastics like ABS, HIPS and PC/ABS.

Looking ahead: the economy of scale in auto plastics recycling p seven

This is a very positive step concerning plastic recycling. What does the future hold for automotive plastic recycling, and is it purely a matter of waiting for volume to catch up with the science? 

It takes time to develop innovative technologies and scale these up. In the meantime, the value chain needs to organise themselves to group and merge volumes of plastic waste to gain sufficient volumes needed for the economy of scale.

For further information, visit www.polystyreneloop.eu

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