In its ‘Let’s talk about Chemical Recycling” series, the Plastics and Rubber Machinery division of the German VDMA association talks to experts and stakeholders active in the chemical recycling space. In response to skeptics about the technology, Markus Klatte, founder and Managing Director of Arcus Greencycling Technologies GmbH would like them to realise that ‘only with all the technologies at our disposal will we be able to complete the massive transformation to a circular economy’.
“Considerably more fossil oil would be consumed without mass balance,” he said.
Mr. Klatte, Arcus commissioned an industrial plant for chemical recycling at the beginning of the year. What are its unique qualities?
By utilising our technology, we can produce a pyrolysis oil from strongly mixed plastic waste that also contains polymers such as PVC, PET, ABS and many others. We process the plastic waste the way it arrives from a waste sorting plant or from partners in industry. We are looking to recycle everything that would otherwise go into incineration. When the material is processed by our pyrolysis, unwanted contaminants such as chlorine or titanium dioxide are separated and put into a sink. Condensable gases and non-condensable vapours are then produced in the gas phase. The condensable gases eventually become the pyrolysis oil. We operate our combined heat and power unit with the filtered, non-condensable gases, which renders our technology virtually energy self-sufficient. In the long run, there will also be a secondary market for residual materials; however, a lot of research still needs to be done in this respect.
With an annual capacity of 4,000 tonnes, it is quite a small plant.
Through our demonstration plant in the Frankfurt-Höchst Chemical Park, we can offer proof that industrial use works. We are still conducting a lot of tests. There are 650 measuring points at our plant that provide data, for example on energy requirements. In addition, the purpose of the plant is to test material flows that have not yet been researched, and to determine what can be recycled and what cannot.
What happens next?
The demonstration plant in Höchst will be in permanent operation. Moreover, we have started planning the first commercial plant with a capacity of 24,000 tonnes of input material. We have concluded various off-take contracts for the supply of the pyrolysis oil, including one with BASF of up to 100,000 tonnes. BASF will process our pyrolysis oil in its own petrochemical plants, and then integrate it into the various plastic production processes. We are virtually an interpreter from the recycling industry to the petrochemical industry.
How important is the mass balance for you?
It is of the utmost importance; nobody is going to build a petrochemical plant solely for pyrolysis oil. The investment can run into billions of euros, but it would not be economical to process merely the small quantities of pyrolysis oil that will be available in the foreseeable future. Therefore, we have to use a similar approach, such as that used for electricity. Although consumers do not know whether exactly the electricity they consume in their own households was generated directly from renewable energies, the share of ecologically generated electricity in the overall grid increases with demand.
Politicians are sceptical about the acceptance of mass balance. What would happen if it were not accepted?
Of course, it would then be more difficult to enter the market; but first and foremost, it would mean capitulation for the circular economy, and the whole world would suffer, as it would further extend the channel for fossil oil use, since the global production of plastics will continue to grow. The chemical industry will have no other choice, otherwise it would not have enough raw material. The political discussion on mechanical and chemical recycling is driven from a perspective that pits the two processes against each other and therefore does not advance the circular economy. Yet both processes are complementary and equal partners in the sense of the waste pyramid so to speak. Only with all the technologies at our disposal will we be able to complete the massive transformation to a circular economy. As chemical recyclers, we do not want to recycle the purest plastic fraction at all. That makes no sense economically or ecologically. However, we have to recycle the fractions that we have been sending to incineration up until now - otherwise, we won't be able to get the maximum out of our recycling quota.
Some argue that chemical recycling is not actually recycling, and therefore cannot be on a par with mechanical recycling.
We see mechanical recycling and chemical recycling as siblings, with the common goal of returning as many plastics as possible to the cycle. Therefore, both broaden the basis of recycling and therefore of the circular economy. After all, what is important in the end is the result of maintaining the carbon within the cycle and achieving a functioning and sustainable circular economy. This is what both do, and in this respect, it is not the terminology that is decisive for me, but the carbon that is recovered. This complementarity should go hand in hand, and consequently both processes are on the same level – ahead of incineration of the plastic waste.