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Recycled polymers nudge market toward sustainable alternatives in styrenics chain
With awareness of sustainability evermore increasing, players in the styrenics markets are exploring the merits and drawbacks of sustainable solutions and recycled materials in the value chain.
Players in the acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), polystyrene (PS) and expandable polystyrene (EPS) markets presented recycled materials made through different processes (chemical recycling and mechanical recycling).
The companies also offered alternative solutions to virgin material, which included recycled blends and combinations of recycled material and virgin product.
Concerns about the implementation of recycling in the styrenics chain include the costs of recycled material, sustainability, quality of the end product, and which applications the recycled material can in.
Different producers are also looking at blends of recycled compounded with virgin material.
INEOS Styrolution has produced recycled ABS using 50% and 70% recycled post-consumer material using mechanical recycling, heating down the material and repurposing it with virgin material.
Electronic appliances such as coffee machines can be recycled using mechanical recycling, which shreds, sorts and separates the product which is then compounded with the original ABS material and performance modifiers.
The new material will be used primarily in household, furniture and electronic applications as the properties for this use match the virgin counterparts. Below is an example of mechanically recycled ABS into furniture and shelving on display at the K Fair event which ran in Dusseldorf, Germany between 16-23 October.
“For electric vehicles, no recycled styrenics can be used as it changes the properties of the material. Blends can be more difficult to heat up and revert to styrene. Mechanical recycling has more quality concerns and chemical recycling is more expensive," an INEOS Styrolution source said.
“We already recycle thousands of tonnes of regrind ABS, and we do not have quality concerns, and we have some small projects for electric vehicles," an ABS buyer said.
"However, for electric vehicles, there are bigger concerns regarding the distance, charging points and the market share. The problems will not be solved unless there are larger quantities in the market and there are not.
“We don’t see potential for next year because the new technology could be too expensive, but I think there will be an eventual domino effect for implementation of recycled material which would offset the high costs,” the buyer added.
According to INEOS Styrolution, recipes have been developed to produce ABS grades using up to 70% recycled material without sacrificing product properties or performance when compared to virgin material.
“Already demand for recycled ABS is outstripping supply, and concerns regarding quality depend on the application, as it cannot be used for food packaging, for example,” an ABS distributor said.
INEOS Styrolution is also working on a joint project with Italian food packaging producer Sirap to recycle PS through depolymerisation.
The company displayed recycled PS using chemical recycling, which is a more expensive process as it involves pyrolysis to melt down the material into styrene oil.
By using distillation the liquid becomes clear styrene, which is turned back into sheets and moulded.
This is a more expensive process as it reverts the material back to styrene but the use of post-consumer material makes this highly sustainable, particularly in the food packaging sector.
Below is an example of post-consumer yoghurt pots undergoing the depolymerisation process and being made into new yoghurt pots. Currently in the food packaging sector the recycling process is more complicated due to strict regulations, as the recycling collection is currently open to contaminants.
Recycled material for food applications is possible, but it depends on post-consumer material separated in recycling without potential contamination from other plastics and materials.
Buyers are also concerned about the cost of recycled material as often the case is that material can be double or triple the cost of the virgin material, and it comes down to how much they want to pay in order to be more sustainable with their material choices. The company said that PS is well suited to food packaging, being lightweight, durable and hygienic, and well suited to recycling due to its high quality and lack of impurities after depolymerisation.
A company source said that by 2021 INEOS Styrolution’s goal is to produce 15,000 tonnes/year of recycled PS with a commercial plant. The company has also published videos showing both processes. Click here to watch the video for ABS. Click here to watch the video for PS.
There are also some quality concerns but that depends on the end market as most recycled material cannot be used in every downstream application that virgin material goes into.
The volumes currently produced are also limited because the material is expensive, but there is a potential for growth in recycled material. A PS and EPS distributor said: “PS is eminently recyclable to the monomer. Recycled PS is really nothing new, but i imagine 99.8% of players aren’t doing it yet.”
EPS producer Versalis has launched a new line of recycled plastic to commercialise recycled EPS and polyethylene (PE), displayed at K Fair.
Their recycled EPS is made from recycled raw material from separated domestic waste collected in Italy, including PS cups, trays and yoghurt pots.
The producer claims that the material can fulfil the same uses as virgin PS, such as insulation panels or protective packaging.
At K Fair the virgin EPS and recycled EPS showed the minimal difference in colour, with the recycled material slightly more grey. As a result, the product appeared to have similar quality to the standard EPS for packaging material.
Versalis claims to be the first to offer recycled EPS and they are also aiming to produce over 20,000 tonnes/year of PS products containing recycled materials.
Currently demand exceeds supply of recycled material in the styrenics chain, and therefore there is a clear trend that recycling is getting its foothold in these markets, with the potential for further growth.
ABS is the largest volume engineering thermoplastic resin and is used in automobiles, electronics and recreational products.
General purpose PS is used in food packaging, disposable utensils, cutleries and various other consumer items. High impact PS is used in consumer electronics and toys while extruded PS is used in the construction industry as insulation.
EPS is a rigid form of polystyrene (PS) used in insulation foams for the construction industry as well as for packaging.