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Plastics recycling
Our solutions

In the 1990s, with the development of PET, IFPEN started research on the chemical recycling of plastics.

« At the time, the social need was met with the introduction of today’s mechanical recycling sectors, for which we did not have the required expertise to offer: grinding is not our business! However, our chemicals and process development expertise enables us to credibly position ourselves in the chemical recycling sector, which offers real development potential, as a complement to mechanical recycling, for specific types of plastic. It is clear that the challenges associated with chemical recycling are economic as well as technological: to make it competitive, several conditions need to be met:

  • address limitations specific to mechanical recycling processes
  • identify a product target with an added value that will compensate for recycling costs,
  • have sufficient recyclable plastic reserves, with a sector in place for collecting or even packaging feeds upstream of the recycling process.

In addition to our long-established expertise, particularly in the field of chemicals, we are examining post-consumption processes and the product value chain to assess the interest of the opportunities that emerge.»

Alexandra Chaumonnot, Forecasting activities for the chemical recycling of plastics project manager, IFPEN

  

Depolymerization of PET

While mechanical recycling works well for clear plastic bottles, a challenge remains when it comes to the treatment of opaque bottles and heat-formed PET packaging (food containers). In 2015, IFPEN launched a project to address the need for purification aimed at recycling these materials while eliminating pigments and dyes.

Plastic_bottles


«The mechanical recycling of PET is very effective for processing clear and colorless PET. It can be used to produce new food containers, which themselves are recyclable: this is known as closed-loop recycling.

However, there are two challenges associated with these mechanical processes:
• the mixture of colors present when used containers are collected. Mechanical recycling does not make it possible to restore a neutral material: colored PET recycled in this way cannot be used, therefore, to produce food-grade containers. It is used as an ingredient in strapping, fibers and technical textiles. These products will no longer be recyclable: this is referred to as an open loop,
• the emergence of opaque PET containers over the past few years. Where opaque PET is concerned, the polymer contains very fine inorganic particles, such as titanium oxide. This formulation is not compatible with current recycling processes and above a certain content, opaque PET causes problems for recyclers.

We believe that chemical recycling is one of the solutions that will make it possible to obtain colorless PET suitable for contact with food from opaque packaging and waste containers. We are thus developing a process that can be used to convert waste colored, opaque or heat-formed PET flakes into a colorless monomer.

Glycolytic depolymerization, depigmentation and decolorization will make it possible to obtain a “pure” polymer in a closed-loop recycling operation.

PET_lifecycle

Our research has already enabled us to:
• validate the proof of concept regarding key elements of the process in the laboratory,
• produce the pure monomer from several dozen kilos of opaque PET flakes from French recycling sectors. Yields obtained in optimized operating conditions confirm the technical and economic viability of the options retained.

The next step, involving a facility operating continuously on a representative scale, will consist in completing the data required for industrial-scale extrapolation

Frédéric Favre, PET recycling process project manager, IFPEN
 

Conversion of plastics to oil cuts

Some types of plastics (polyethylene, polypropylene) are not suitable for depolymerization: IFPEN is conducting research into how chemical recycling can be used to convert them into substitutes for fossil hydrocarbons.

«Over the past few years we have been focusing on plastic to fuels technologies. Using conventional thermal cracking processes (or catalytic cracking or hydrocracking), it is technically possible to obtain hydrocarbons that can replace fossil cuts from polyethylene-, polypropylene- or polystyrene-rich plastic blends. While the conversion technology is relatively well mastered, there are still several challenges to be overcome before this new sector can become established:
• sensitivity to the nature of the feeds processed (cost, quality, quantity),
• optimization of purification operations as a function of the conversion envisaged for the products. Should products be converted directly or reinjected in a refinery?
• sensitivity of the profitability of the process to oil price fluctuations in the absence of incentive mechanisms.

In parallel, we lend our expertise to specific projects such as Samuel Le Bihan’s NGO Earthwake: we are providing consultancy services for the use of conversion products from the Chrysalis reactor, which it developed to produce fuels from plastic waste, destined primarily for Africa.»

Thierry Gauthier, Circular economy forecasting manager, IFPEN

Purification of polymers via the dissolution of plastics

«We are also examining PVC and polyolefin recycling via dissolution: dissolution using a solvent would make it possible to isolate and purify all or part of the polymer without depolymerizing, which could prove interesting, particularly in terms of LCA optimization.”»

Alexandra Chaumonnot, Forecasting activities for the chemical recycling of plastics project manager, IFPEN
 

Contacts

Slavik Kasztelan

  • Program manager: “Biomass to chemicals”, and “Petrochemicals”

Thierry Gauthier

  • Prospective Circular Economy Manager, Incubation PME Division