Chemical recycling continues to exert its presence in the drive towards a circular economy, as new players enter the field. As part of an ongoing series looking at a range of start-ups, Victoria Hattersley spoke to Netherlands-based startup's OBBOTEC’s Wouter van Neerbos about his company’s unique approach to chemical recycling, the challenges it has faced as a new entrant to the market and how he views the ongoing sustainability questions faced by the industry.

VH: Can you tell me about OBBOTEC’s selected plastic extraction and integrated hydro-pyrolysis technologies: in simple terms (for those without the requisite technical background!), how do they work and how do they compare to traditional mechanical recycling technologies?

WvN: OBBOTEC’s Hydro-Pyrolysis is important technology because it recycles a mixed stream of bio and plastic into high quality oil. You can imagine there are many of these mixed waste streams that cannot be recycled today because they cannot be separated. For instance, in your household garbage bin, in bins of restaurants, airplanes, etc. Or in industrial applications like the glasshouses where they grow tomatoes along plastic sticks.

OBBOTEC’s Selective Plastic Extraction (SPE) is an innovative chemical plastic recycling technology based on solvolysis. SPE can convert a mix of waste plastics into (near) ‘virgin’ granules because it removes all contamination from plastic, such as fragrances and dyes, coatings and plasticizers. This is in contrast to current mechanical recycling where the contamination is not removed. Therefore, mechanical recycling always involves ‘down-cycling’ to a lower quality recyclate, whereas SPE refers to ‘up-cycling’. Solvolysis offers within the chemical recycling spectrum the lowest cost and footprint solution. Besides it is the only direct high quality ‘plastic-to-plastic’ solution that also deals with multi-layer plastics.

OBBOTEC's SPE focuses on the largest and most important category of plastics, polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), which together represent around 50% of all plastic waste. Moreover, it is possible with this SPE technology to recycle multi-layer packaging. This means a combination of plastic and other layers, such as PE or PP with aluminium (PolyAL) for beverage cartons. OBBOTEC therefore offers a disruptive solution for one of the biggest problems of the plastic waste mountain.

VH: We often hear about the problem of a lack of high-quality recycled feedstock to put back into the supply chain in order to create a truly circular economy. Is this solution scalable enough to address this challenge Europe-wide, or even globally?

WvN: For Hydro-Pyrolysis this is not an issue at all, and today there is an over-supply of feed already available. The SPE is also selective for the polymers so the feed could be contaminated, although we prefer some mechanical recycling upfront to clean the feed and to optimize the yield of the process as you can understand.

Regarding the scalability, today we have lab scale units, and we will have a better insight once we have built the pilot unit later this year. I should mention that we don’t intend to build mega units since we believe smaller-sized unit (of about 20 kt) would be ideal from a supply/demand market position in future, allowing us to avoid major logistical challenges.

VH: In general, do you think there is enough support for green start-ups? How important is it that the larger players encourage emerging technologies like this and how do you view the collective responsibility of the industry as a whole to nurture new ideas?

WvN: I don’t think there is, particularly for small scale industrial technology ones since they are capital intensive, require a lot of resources and a long-term approach. Typically, this doesn’t fit SMEs, but the bigger corporates. However, from their side they don’t rock the boat, want to focus on utilizing their existing assets, and their staff are short-term focussed as they are concerned about this year’s bonus.

So, there is an opportunity to improve from both sides. A classic industrial R&D challenge…

VH: Finally, at Packaging Europe we believe that the recent focus on plastic waste has obscured the even greater importance of decarbonization if we are to tackle the global climate crisis – particularly when it comes to how consumers view the problem. Do you think the packaging industry and brand owners have a key role to play in redressing this balance?

WvN: I agree the bigger goal is to avoid any carbon leakage to the environment and close the carbon loop; this applies to the plastic waste in the environment / oceans as well as CO2 as waste from burning plastics and fossil fuels. So, I strongly believe it is all about carbon circularity, not decarbonization because carbons are excellent molecules for plastics and fuels. The only problem is the linearity and waste of today’s set-up.  

I agree that firstly the brand owners and secondly the packaging industry (as their suppliers) need to start closing the loop.

The other industries that need to be involved are the petrochemical industry, which needs to close the loop with recycled input, and the waste collection industry which should work together with the petrochemical industry. I know from my twenty-five years with Shell that these are two different worlds since the petrochemical industry is a clean, molecular and technical world, whereas the waste management industry is a dirty, mechanical operational world. These two are difficult to marry up.