• PLASTIC:Unwrapped

The sustainable plastic economy?

What a great start to our 2020 leg of the PLASTIC:Unwrapped journey we’ve had!

No rest for the wicked- but it our case that really helped us get over our jetlag. Arriving in Sydney at night, we had a 9am pick up arrangement the following morning. While at first just the thought of having to get out of bed after the long journey was daunting, it did not give the jetlag much time to catch up with us. Sometimes biting the bullet and powering through is the way to go!

To be fair, we spend the whole day learning about how plastic waste can be made into a circular economy, which was very interesting and didn’t give our bodies a lot of time to succumb to the tiredness (although who knows when that will catch up with us!).

Our first stop was a MRF, a material recovery facility that is run my iQ Renew along the Central Coast. iQ Renew was the first company to combine physical and chemical recycling. They take in approximately 300 000 tonnes of recyclables each year. While there is some variation in the how the various councils pick up household recyclables, the majority is through the yellow bin which is a kerbside mixed recycling bin. These mixed recycling bins get collected and are taken to the MRF, where glass is the first material that get separated out. Unfortunately, because of the size and weight a lot of hard HDPE gets mistaken for glass and then ends up in landfill. (The number of plastic toys we found was insane- little figurines of Simba, cats, Woody from Toy Story and the list goes on and on…We could seriously open our own little toy store! Heads up, THESE ARE NOT RECYCLED so don’t throw them in the recycling bin!) They are currently working on a way to improve this efficiency. The glass gets recycled into sand which is then used in buildings, infrastructure, roads and fertilizers. Aluminium cans are separated out with a giant magnet and different blades help separate the paper and cardboard out of the conveyer belt. It was interesting to see how the whole system fits together. Aside from the glass, each of the other now separated recyclables are compressed and baled. The prices that these bales are being sold at vary, depending on the material and demand. Australia is working on legislation that wants to ban the export of recyclables to other countries, although currently recycling infrastructure within Australia is still very limited.

It was very interesting to firstly see the types of things people throw into their recycling bins (gas canisters?!) but also just the shear amount of recyclables that are collected on a daily basis. It would be so insightful for more people to see this as it definitely gets you thinking and reflecting on your own habits and consumption.

Following that we were introduced to Licella’s Cat-HTR platform. This Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor is edge-cutting technology that aims to create renewable biocrude oil in just 20-30 minutes. The process is relatively simple- using water, temperature, pressure and specific catalysts, the CAT-HTR uses a range of different waste feedstocks (everything ranging from sawmill residues to wetsuits to your conventional recycled PET and HDPE) and turns that into high-value synthetic oil or biocrude.

The beauty of this technology is that it has the capacity to use all different types of ‘end of life’ plastic, meaning that they are not competing with other recycling industries. All types of plastic have a finite number of times that they can be recycled, and so currently non-recyclables and materials that have been recycled but have now degraded and are no longer functional can all be shredded up and converted back to fuel. This oil can be refined to advanced biofuels and chemicals and either be used in transportation (such as marine fuel) or can be repurposed and go back into making plastic products. This is a great way of reducing plastic waste and not promoting the extraction of natural resources.

Licella made a great video explaining this in simple terms:

It has truly been a privilege to get an insight into hydrothermal upgrading and see how Licella has put a value on currently non-recyclable plastics and other plastics that have previously been deemed useless.

A very pleasant surprise was that we were lulled to sleep by the beautiful, lush and much, much needed rains here in Sydney! It has truly been a blessing as these rains have already helped extinguish 32 bush fires just in NSW, giving those dedicated firefighters a bit of a rest!