Chemicals are the building blocks used to manufacture many familiar products, including plastics. Globally, almost two-thirds of all styrene produced is used to make polystyrene. Of that amount, approximately two-thirds of polystyrene is used in packaging applications, which currently account for the largest amount of recycled styrene-based products.
Recycling involves several steps, including waste collection, separation of recyclable materials, reprocessing/cleaning, resale, and use of the recycled materials in products. While recycling can be described somewhat simply, the process itself is complicated due to different physical and chemical properties of materials in waste streams. For example, different plastics are used in different products or end-use applications. Mechanical and advanced recycling are two distinct approaches.
The most common method for recycling post-use plastics is mechanical recycling, which includes operations to recover plastics waste via mechanical processes – grinding, washing, separating, drying, re-granulating, and compounding. In mechanical recycling, the basic structure of the polymer stays intact, and, for polystyrene packaging, the recycled material is reused to generally make less valuable products. However, mechanical recycling is easily hampered by contamination and/or different types of plastics in the waste stream.
Advanced recycling refers to the different processes that use existing and emerging technologies to go beyond mechanical recycling and return post-use plastics to their basic chemical building blocks. The aim is to create a versatile mix of new plastics, chemicals, fuels, and other products.
Many companies that produce styrene are dedicated to sustainable materials management, including accelerating the recycling of styrene-based products through innovative technologies and partner-driven solutions. System changes that include advanced recycling are underway, transforming methods used to recover and recycle plastics resources.
The advanced process of chemical recycling recovers primarily post-use plastics not widely recycled today and converts them to their original molecular raw materials to be remade into new high-quality plastics. Polystyrene is one of the polymers that can be converted back into its specific (styrene) monomer, allowing polystyrene plastics to be recycled over and over again. Significant advances are taking place in chemical recycling technologies for dealing with discarded plastics.
While chemical recycling is a promising circular solution that can infinitely convert waste plastics back into like-new material, it is not intended to replace mechanical recycling. Instead, chemical recycling can complement mechanical recycling by serving as an alternative process for those plastics currently unable to be recycled mechanically. For example, being able to efficiently recycle multi-material, multi-layer, and colored plastics with chemical recycling could significantly contribute to increasing plastic recycling rates and reaching proposed recycling targets.
A Circular Economy for Plastics
Chemical recycling and other initiatives can play a pivotal role in creating a circular economy and are at the core of the styrene industry’s evolving sustainable business model. A circular economy differs from the prevailing linear economic model in which materials are largely disposed of after use, resulting in large amounts of valuable materials either buried in landfills or improperly discarded as litter. In a circular economy, waste products are not just reused, but rather converted into new products that retain as much value as possible. Together with our value chain partners, styrene manufacturers aim to transition to increasingly circular systems for designing, manufacturing, recycling, and recovering our plastic packaging resources.
For more information, visit:
- Alliance to End Plastic Waste was formed in January 2019 as a not-for-profit organization to develop, accelerate, and deploy solutions to unlock even more investment to help solve the magnitude of eight million tons of plastic waste entering our oceans every year.
- From Single Use to Reuse is a collaborative effort of industry innovators, primarily America’s plastic makers, seeking to end plastic waste.
- Styrenics Circular Solutions, a European Union trade group comprised of members affiliated with various stages of the styrene value chain, focuses on advanced recycling technologies such as depolymerization, dissolution, and mechanical recycling.
In 2018, members of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division, including major manufacturers of styrene, set the following ambitious goals for capturing, recycling, and recovering plastics:
- 100% of plastics packaging is recyclable or recoverable by 2030.
- 100% of plastics packaging is reused, recycled, or recovered by 2040.
Did you know?
You need not travel to the United Kingdom to experience Stonehenge. You can have it just a few miles outside of Washington, D.C., where you will find an exact replica of the ancient site made entirely from polystyrene. “Foamhenge,” formerly located on the property of the famed Natural Bridge of Virginia and now standing at Cox Farms in Centreville, Virginia, is open to the public during limited hours. The Smithsonian Channel exclaims, “It’s a Foamnomena.”