Breakthrough technology being developed to return difficult-to-recycle polypropylene to near-virgin quality now is showing promise for at least one other key resin.
PureCycle Technologies Inc. is developing a commercial-scale PP recycling facility in Ironton, Ohio.
The plant initially is targeting colored and dirty PP. But CEO Mike Otworth said the technology could also handle polyethylene.
PureCycle is still more than a year away from beginning commercial production at its recycling facility in Ohio, but the company already is in talks to expand into Europe.
The company, using technology developed by Procter & Gamble Co., is spending 269 million euros ($300 million) on a revolutionary approach toward PP recovery, using a combination of heat, pressure and solvents to return used PP to like-virgin quality.
"P&G has done early proof-of-concept work for polyethylene. We believe the process will work quite well for polyethylene. The pressures and temperatures are a little different. So the process wouldn't be exactly the same," Otworth said.
"But we're looking at some new and efficient separation technologies that will separate polypropylene from polyethylene so we can eventually buy mixed bales and run them through lines that are side by side," he said.
"There may be other resins additionally that might work with the process, but I think we can speak with confidence to polypropylene and polyethylene."
PureCycle's approach is proving popular as production for the first plant — again, not even on line yet — is sold out for the next 20 years.
Otworth, at K 2019 on Oct. 18, said that is only the beginning. Eventual plans call for 25 plants located around the world.
At $200 million apiece for those subsequent facilities, PureCycle is betting big on the future of its technology.
Future locations will depend on the availability of used PP feedstock, Otworth said.
"There's plenty of places from a demand standpoint that would be great. But we've got to think about the feedstock availability in that location. That's where we reach out to a lot of potential partners," he said.
"We're evaluating potential sights in Europe right now. We've had several countries that have contacted us about the possibility of locating a PureCycle plant there," he said.
Otworth was in Düsseldorf with Allen Jacoby, senior vice president of the plastics additives business for Milliken Chemicals, to talk about PureCycle's progress.
Milliken Chemicals, a supplier of additives and colorants and a unit of Milliken & Co., is partnering with PureCycle to develop the technology as it heads towards commercialization.
Milliken has a twofold involvement with the project, according to Jacoby: Supplying both additives and technical support to advance the project.
"On the additives side, they are going to need a lot of help ingesting a lot of materials and insuring the performance of the product is virgin quality," Jacoby said.
That's a sweet spot for Milliken.
"The second area is technical support, helping them process the multitude of these materials. Also, on the application side," to ensure the performance of the recycled PP, he said.
"We're a performance additives and color business. We're really focused on the additives side on how we can enhance recycling, increase recycled content. That's what the world wants. And that's what the world needs," Jacoby said.
"This is a huge, complex challenge to achieve circularity. A lot has to happen. A lot of problems have to be solved," he said. "It's really investing in the right partnerships and collaborating with the right people."
PureCycle's move into Europe could include a partner with knowledge of the market.
"Part of what we're thinking about is might we want to co-locate with some established player. One of the reasons I'm here is we're having conversations with several of them about might we want to co-locate. And even Milliken might be a candidate for a co-location in Europe. We're using that as part of the criteria. Germany has approached us about the possibility of building one here. We've had meetings in Belgium about some sites there that they think might be good," Otworth said.
"But we're pretty open minded at this point, but we really would like to narrow it down at least by next year to a list of finalists," Otworth said.
The CEO said that with equipment ordering lead times and permitting, planning a new location could be done in less than two years.
"Our plans right now are to build 25 plants," Otworth said. "Twenty-five plants will hardly even scratch the surface of the demand. But it's enough to at least move the needle and supply a good group of companies globally like Procter & Gamble. The imperative from them when they licensed the technology to us is we wanted to be supplied globally with this resin."
Removal of additives from used PP drops the yield by about 6 percent when making like-virgin resin through the PureCycle approach. The recycling process itself results in a yield loss of a couple percent.
"It's a process that isn't a chemical process. It's a process that isn't a mechanical process. It's actually a physical separation and purification process. The goal from the inception of the technology is wanting to be able develop a recycled polypropylene that could be used interchangeably with virgin without any compromise," Otworth said.
PureCycle sees its technology fundamentally changing how companies utilize recycled PP. Typical PP recycling results in resin that's gray or black because colors are not removed.
While recycled resin of those darker colors can be transformed into new products, those new products then likely face disposal because of the difficult to optically sort the darkened resin once it hits the recycling system for a second time, Otworth said.
PureCycle's approach, which strips colors and additives away, results in a clear resin that mimics virgin quality and allows for repeated recycling, he said.