While PRSE 2023 saw the return of many exhibitors who were participating for the second or third time, bolstering the hard core of veterans who had elected to support the event from the very first edition in 2017, there was also a multitude of new names.
The show was, by all counts, a huge success.
As Borealis’ Chris McArdle noted, the recycling industry has shed its former image to become a crucial part of the plastics industry today.
“If you're a big polymer player and you're not talking about recycling, you have a problem,” he said. “I think the fact that the event is continuing to grow and expand shows the direction in which this industry is travelling.”
PRSE 2023 was not the first time the company came to the Amsterdam show, and Borealis has already announced it would be back for next year’s edition as well. “The show’s a barometer about how things are progressing – a great opportunity to get the pulse of the industry, ” observed McArdle.
Among the polymer producers, Borealis was an early player in this space - the first to buy into the recycling industry, both mechanical and chemical. The company also recently acquired a majority stake in Renasci, a Belgian recycler that has developed the concept of Smart Chain Processing (SCP) to sort mixed waste into multiple streams – ‘glass, metal, paper, rigid plastics, flexible plastics’, said McArdle. “We firmly believe in the concept. Of course, there are challenges when you are integrating many different processes, so getting everything up and running in sync is key.”
A fully-fledged SPC module consists of many different modules – it is a hub concept, he explained.
“These modules can be scaled, and it's a model that can be replicated. Obviously, onceeverything is optimised, it’s a highly attractive economic model. Traditionally, in the petrochemical industry you build bigger units. But bigger units also mean having to transport more waste to the facility, which we do not believe is very efficient. So, we believe in building modules at central locations, so, units that can handle 100-150kt/a of input waste. And out of that the idea is to generate multiple product streams, by extracting the different types of waste, sorting the rigid plastic for further mechanical recycling and routing the non-recyclable flexibles towards chemical recycling; and we separate the PET. The ideal is to optimise the system in such a way as to make sure that you're valorising everything.”
SCP ultimately aims to create zero waste and use zero energy, as all the heat and electricity required to power the facility is generated during the integrated recycling process.
Mechanical recycling is still very important for Borealis, McArdle emphasised.
“In connection with the circular cascade model that we were talking about, anything that can be mechanically recycled should be mechanically recycled,” he said. Technology development is needed to be able to scale with higher quality.
“It's easy to replicate basic mechanical recycling, but at the end of the day, especially on the packaging side, higher value applications are being demanded. Food contact applications are a challenge, but I’m confident we're going to get there. There's quite a lot of work going on in the polyolefin space in terms of developing food contact quality recycled polypropylene.”
Borealis is also actively exploring this space with its Borcycle M technology, which transforms post-consumer polyolefin waste into high-performance polymers suitable for demanding applications. “Our ultimate goal is to get to food contact quality from mechanical recycling. If we could deliver food contact PP at scale and consistently, I think a lot of brand owners would be very happy,” he said.
The company is currently building a new plant that will have capacity to produce over 60 kt/a of advanced mechanical recycled polyolefins and compounds per year, in Schwechat, Austria, that is due to go into operation late in 2025.
“We believe that there's always going to be much more demand for mechanical recycling than for chemical recycling. Obviously, with the targets at the European level and with the new packaging directive, chemical recycling will also play a role as these targets will otherwise not be met.”
The important thing from an industry standpoint, he added, is to continue to walk the talk to maintain our credibility as an industry – which is particularly important with regard to chemical recycling.
“The public perception of plastics is not rosy so that makes it even more important to do it – and to do it right. As an industry, we always risk having a credibility gap.
Moreover, the focus on chemical recycling should not come at the expense of mechanical recycling. We've got to get everything we can out of mechanical recycling and only then switch to chemical recycling. In the end, a mechanical recycler should be able to benefit from the chemical recyclers. It’s very complementary and we've got a big enough challenge to address. Together is a way to maximise circularity.”