The infamous nine percent: Czech firm tests new plastic recycling technology

Thermochemical recycling unit in Dvorce u Bruntálu

What really happens to your plastic after you’ve carefully sorted it and put it in your local recycling container (in Czechia, those iconic yellow bins)? According to many recent media reports, rather than being recycled, it likely ends up in landfill, an incinerator, or even worse, in the ocean or dumped in a field, as most of the plastic that people put in recycling containers is unusable using current recycling methods. But a new technology currently being tested in Czechia may provide hope of a solution.

Plastic recycling has been the subject of a lot of controversy in recent years, with information emerging that only 9% of the plastic ever produced has been recycled (MIT Technology Review, Oct 2023). A report by NPR from 2022 titled “Recycling plastic is practically impossible — and the problem is getting worse” sums up many of the headlines surrounding this topic.

Illustrative photo: Hyena~commonswiki,  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

According to the 2020 documentary Plastic Wars, plastic recycling was more or less just a big hoax invented by the plastic industry to sell more plastic. The technology to recycle plastic wasn’t even available at the time recycling started being touted as the panacea to cure all the environmental and health problems caused by plastic – such as the millions of tons of the stuff that ends up in our oceans, waterways, and ultimately our bodies, in the form of microplastics.

But that could possibly change in the not-too-distant future. One source of hope is a new technology currently being tested by the Czech company Green Future, which the firm says could allow for plastic to be recycled and re-used more or less indefinitely.

Michal Pivrnec from Green Future | Photo: Eva Kézrová,  Czech Radio

Known as thermochemical recycling, the process involves using heat to break down plastics into a mixture of basic hydrocarbons, which can then be reused for further production. The entire system works without needing access to oxygen, says Michal Pivrnec from Green Future.

"It's an emission-free technology. Although gas comes out, we reuse it straight away for further compression.”

One of the reasons that so little of the plastic that we put in our containers actually ends up getting recycled is that current recycling methods can’t process dirty or unsorted mixed plastic. One of the big advantages of thermochemical recycling is that it still works even if the plastic isn’t clean, or if there are bits of other materials mixed in with it, says Michal Pivrnec.

Photo: Eva Kézrová,  Czech Radio

“It’s capable of processing everything that’s made of carbon – it doesn’t matter if there’s bits of food, metal or stones in there. Once it passes through the shredder, it’s irrelevant as it’s broken down into basic materials. Either it’s turned into oil or gas, or it stays as a solid residue. If we put a stone in there, it will fall out in 50 minutes at the other end as a solid non-degradable residue.”

The oil that is produced is pyrolysis oil, sometimes also known as bio-crude or bio-oil, a brown, translucent liquid that almost looks like coloured water.

“From a chemical point of view, it is C5 to C12 hydrocarbons, which is gasoline, kerosene, diesel. This oil is in great demand for the production of new plastics."

The first thermochemical plastic recycling unit in Czechia is being tested in Dvorce in the Moravian-Silesian Region, and the permit for using the technology commercially could be issued by the end of the year.

Authors: Anna Fodor , Eva Kézrová | Source: Český rozhlas
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