I have been to Swindon again and seen the Future (The death of ‘Single Use Plastic’)

I first wrote this headline in 2019 after a visit to Recycling Technologies, the Swindon based developer of a small scale chemical recycling plant they had named RT7000. It was designed to recycle 7,000 tonnes per year of ‘difficult to recycle’ plastics.

The Managing Director and founder of the company, Adrian Griffiths, outlined his vision for the future of plastic waste recycling. His objective is that every major waste disposal site in the UK would have at least one RT7000 machine located on site, to process all those plastics that were difficult to recycle, from metalised laminates to polystyrene, black and mixed plastics.

Adrian had no illusions about the difficulties facing the development, not only of the pyrolysis technology needed to recycle these plastics back into oil, but also designing a modular plant which could be erected in a few months, not years, on each of the UK’s EFW sites. Indeed, at the time of my visit the pilot plant was once again ‘down for maintenance’.

Nevertheless, I was shown barrels of ‘plaxx’ produced earlier. This was the resultant high quality, high value oil, ideal for specialist applications, or ‘cracking’ back into substrates, such as plastic. 

At that time, amongst many others, the company’s major problem was keeping the money flowing in from investors through crowd-funding, with literally £millions needed each year to maintain the momentum of development. The ‘cash burn’ was over £10 million and counting, but it was obvious that the environmental potential and financial benefits for a small scale, easily erected, chemical recycling plant for different plastics is exceptional. Indeed, a recent report by the World Economic Forum calculated that the ‘lost resource’ from our failure to recycle all plastics was some $120 billion. Unfortunately, the commencement of the initial pilot plant to be constructed in Perthshire, Scotland was once again delayed due to COVID.

Since 2019, Recycling Technologies have made considerable progress, including entering into a joint venture with Ineos to recycle polystyrene. In addition, they are currently intending to raise some £40 million by floating the company on the AIM Junior stock market, this will be a major step to achieving Adrian’s plans for 1,300 RT7000 plants, operational by 2027.

Meanwhile, on Teesside, Mura Technology is building the world’s first commercial scale chemical recycling plant for converting some 80,000 tonnes per year of all types of plastic waste. The process being used here is slightly different using ‘super critical’ steam to convert plastics back into oils and chemicals. The plant is scheduled for completion in 2022 and Mura are projecting that they will build some 1 million tonnes of chemical recycling capacity around the world by 2025.

These projects, and others, such as Sabic in the Netherlands, BASF in the USA, and Plastic Energy in Spain involve some serious money invested by some of the world’s leading petrochemical companies, determined to make all types of plastics part of the Circular Economy, along with reducing carbon emissions by recycling plastic waste. In these circumstances, we could anticipate that these developments would be welcomed by environmental organisations, such as Greenpeace. Major companies making major investments to recycle plastics. Unfortunately, this is not welcomed by Greenpeace. Ivy Schlegel, their Plastics Research Specialist, describes chemical plastic recycling as a ‘fantasy’ and should not be considered recycling. She goes on to claim that of the 52 current projects in process in the USA, 50% are not viable and 50% do not meet the Greenpeace criteria for recycling. She claims that these projects have recycled just 0.2% of the plastics produced in 2017 which is probably correct as chemical recycling of plastics is still in its infancy in 2021.     

In my opinion, these comments expose the hypocrisy of Greenpeace and several other so called environmental organisations (Plastic Planet). Such is their anti-plastic agenda that, whatever the industry achieves in recycling, greenhouse gas reductions, waste collection and waste management, it will not be enough.

The reasons being, they have built their raison d’etre on anti-plastic agenda which ignores the invaluable role plastics play in all aspects of our daily lives. These organisations and their very existence, in some cases, are threatened by making plastics more environmentally acceptable, with a resultant loss of membership and income. If they were really serious about solving at least one of our environmental problems they would support the investment being made worldwide in chemical recycling of plastics.