Recycling 101: Chemical Recycling

Chemical recycling, also known as plastics to feedstocks, is pushing the boundaries of how and where recycled plastics can be used.


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Recycling is an umbrella term that covers many processes. One of these processes is chemical recycling. This is an innovative way of turning used plastics into materials that are as good as new. It involves breaking plastics down to their basic chemicals and then using those chemicals in new applications.

What Is Chemical Recycling?

Chemical recycling turns plastic polymers back into individual monomers—allowing materials to be reused in a variety of ways. In this process, the chemical building blocks that make up the recycled plastic are recovered. The fundamental building blocks can be re-polymerized endlessly, giving them the qualities of brand-new, or virgin, resin. The transformation can occur through a variety of processes, all of which avoid combustion, or burning, of plastics.

Here’s one way plastics can be chemically recycled in an oxygen-free environment:

Chemical Recycling

Polymer: a large molecule made up of monomers
Monomer: a molecule that can be bonded to others to create a polymer
Re-polymerization: the process in which recycled monomers are bonded to create new polymers

Chemical recycling helps us overcome the limits of traditional recycling. It also helps manufacturers continue to push the boundaries of how, and where, recycled plastics can be used. Chemical recycling has long been used for nylons, and the industry is working to make it possible for other resin types.

Chemical Recycling in Action

Regenyx a joint venture formed in April 2019 by polystyrene manufacturer AmSty and alternative energy company Agilyx, will use Agilyx’s chemical recycling process to convert used polystyrene (PS) products like foam cups, to-go boxes and meat trays back to their original liquid styrene monomer. AmSty will then work with its supply chain partners to make new PS products using the styrene monomer “without any degradation of quality or value.” The companies call the circular recycling model the PolyUsable process.

Shaw Industries Group uses chemical recycling for nylon and polyester fiber in carpets. The company has invested more than $20 million to convert products that were once seen as waste into valuable resources. They reclaimed and recycled more than 800 million pounds of carpet from 2006 to 2015.

Resinate Materials Group collects chemicals from plastic materials and works to promote the practical and economical value of chemically recycled plastics. The company has found several high-value applications for the chemicals harvested from recycled medical plastics. It uses certain types of recycled packaging to create coatings, adhesives and sealants.

Patagonia, an outdoor clothing brand, chemically recycles non-wearable Capilene® polyester and fleece products. Today, the brand features a collection of products made completely from recycled materials. Patagonia’s chemical recycling process uses 76% less energy than the process used to make new polyester.

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