Faced with the ever-mounting problem of plastic waste, consumers, organisations and governments around the world have called for industry solutions. While recycling can offer an answer, not all plastics can simply be recycled. And in fact, only around 10% of waste plastics are recycled today worldwide. Chemical recycling company Agilyx is working to change that. “We're trying to do something about a waste problem,” said the company’s chief commercial officer, Carsten Larsen. “To enable a circular model that allows plastic to be used and recycled, again and again.”
Founded almost two decades ago, Agilyx can rightly be viewed as one of the pioneers of what today is known as chemical - or alternatively as advanced, feedstock or even molecular – recycling. Chemical recycling makes it possible to convert even hard-to-recycle mixed waste plastics into low-carbon feedstock that can be used to make new raw materials that can be turned into plastics.
While the premise is extremely promising, in practice there are still hurdles to be overcome. The technology developed by Agilyx involves a process called pyrolysis and is not entirely uncontroversial. Environmental groups have denounced it, calling it polluting, energy intensive and even just a fancy way of saying that these waste streams are simply being incinerated. Proponents, on the other hand, point to the advantages it offers, particularly the ability to increase the recycling of plastics unable to be recycled with traditional recycling processes.
“We've conducted one LCA assessment via SCS in the past and it came out very favourably,” said Carsten Larsen. “We're about to initiate a larger study as well that will show some of the benefits of our technology.”
But as he pointed out: “It’s an emerging industry. So, let me make a general comment to the industry: we are still learning. We want to stop putting plastic in landfill and instead try to turn this into a circular resource. We also want to stop digging up or exploiting any more fossil fuel. I like to compare it to the wind industry - twenty years ago, people were building the first wind turbines, while others were calling them crazy. And now in Denmark, 21% of our energy is provided by cost competitive wind power, because the industry scaled up. It was subsidised in the beginning, then offshore wind turbines appeared and today, wind energy is cost competitive with fossil fuel energy. I see the same sort of thing applying to chemical recycling.”
He added: “So let's not be defensive but recognise where we are. We're trying to do something about a waste problem. And yes, it is easy to be critical, but I haven’t heard a better alternative. Is there potential to make this system more effective? Absolutely. That’s exactly what we are working on.”
Pyrolysis technology is nothing new. In fact, it was used in Middle East up to 5500 years ago to make charcoal, while the ancient Egyptians used it to make tar for caulking boats as well as certain embalming agents used for mummification purposes. Today, numerous pyrolysis technologies are being developed by chemical recycling companies to process waste plastics of all kinds.
What distinguishes Agilyx from the rest, said Carsten, are – in his opinion – two things. In the first place, the integrated approach with Cyclyx, which is basically focussed on establishing new waste supply streams by matching these to the different conversion technologies used by Cyclyx members; and second, the development of a robust technology that is characterised by a number of specific features. It is a combination that drew Carsten to the company, which he joined as chief commercial officer last year September, after a 25-year career spent at Dow. “This is what made Agilyx stand out to me personally, and I think now, too, the industry is discovering this as well. The company is a very interesting technology provider,” he said.
He explained: “First, the integrated approach with Cyclyx. It is unique in the industry – there’s currently no one else offering both waste collection and the technology to turn this into feedstock. Existing waste management companies in the industry have the waste plastic, but not the necessary conversion technologies. What happens today is that waste is sorted, it is washed and the purest is diverted to mechanical recycling. Of the remainder that's already been washed and cleaned, the film fraction can go to some of the technologies on the market today. But then you're left with a lot of other waste, which tends to end up being landfilled or incinerated.”
Unlike the average waste management companies in the business, Cyclyx is capable of chemically characterising the composition of the waste, based on the datasets built up from Agilyx’ almost two decades of experience in this space. This expertise means that the teams at Cyclyx knows how certain kinds of waste react when processed, enabling them to develop recipes for conversion technology.
“It is a novel way of thinking,” said Carsten. “That you could put feedstock A together with feedstock B, and a little bit of feedstock C and arrive at a perfect feedstock for a conversion technology that will produce good oil.”
Many companies, he pointed out, who want to engage in recycling have difficulty knowing what kind of waste they need, or if they know what they need, they have no idea where to find it. “Cyclyx tells these companies we know where to find it. We know how to prepare it. And we know how to get it to you in a recipe form that fits with your process. It's like a matchmaking capability,” he said.
The success of the Cyclyx initiative demonstrates the industry’s need for a solution like this. Agilyx owns 75% of Cyclyx and Exxon Mobil holds the remaining 25% of the shares. Organised as a consortium, companies in the industry can join to take advantage of the available expertise and to procure the input waste tailored to their needs. The aim is to take the cost out of the system by establishing new supply chains.
“LyondellBasell, for instance: if they want feedstock for their mechanical recycling business, Cyclyx can help. Does Exxon Mobil want feedstock for their chemical recycling business? Cyclyx can help. It's a kind of pass-through model at cost,” said Carsten.
Agilyx receives a royalty for the tonnes that pass through the facility for the use of the Agilyx database or data set, predictive modelling and the artificial intelligence connected with this.
“The interest is to drive cost down and to make plastic recycling cost competitive. That's why people say this is what the industry needs. It's an initiative that has originated from the industry itself, instead of having been imposed by the EU or another regulatory body, and this is precisely what makes it more acceptable to the industry. It is truly unique in that the five largest plastics companies have signed up to this despite the fact that Exxon Mobile owns 25% of Cyclyx. Truly, that's an almost unthinkable thing in the plastics industry, right? This signals the need and the willingness for this kind of solution.”