Unlocking a New Way to Recycle Plastics

Less than one tenth of plastic actually gets recycled worldwide. Most of the 300+ million tons that we pump out every year is dumped in nature, landfilled, or incinerated.

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Where our plastic packaging ends up, Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Among the many reasons our recycling rates continue to lag, the quality of recycled plastic is a big one.

To make a new plastic bottle out of the one you just tossed in the blue bin, you have to literally sort out its exact color, or else it’ll come out as a brown mishmash of all the colors. On top of that you degrade the material with each new life.

Dutch startup, Ioniqa might have just made all of that a whole lot easier.

I spoke with Gert van Exel about their work using a fluid of magnetic nanoparticles to break down plastic into its essential building blocks, and reform it into virgin-quality material.

This interview was edited for clarity.

Gert:

We’re the missing link, this missing piece in the whole chain of recycling.

The problem with traditional mechanical recycling is that you damage the polymers and the product you can make out of it is always inferior in quality.

What we do is chemical recycling. We go back to the original virgin-grade raw material.

Chemical recycling is not new, but what is new is that we use magnetic nanoparticles, which make it possible to do this type of recycling very effectively, and very efficiently, so that it’s very profitable for the first time.

Depolymerize me

The plastic depolymerizes to raw materials, and we can get rid of the color at a very mild temperature and atmospheric pressure.

You don’t need a lot of energy. You don’t need a lot of time to depolymerize all the materials.

It was at the moment of discovering this, in 2013, that we thought, hey “we might have a circular solution to the world’s plastic waste problem.”

In fact, we’re not selling a product, but an industry transition.

Black liquid, white crystals

Ioniqa’s nanoparticle ferrofluid dances to music

We get out all the colors and impurities and what remains is the pure monomers, the building blocks of new PET (Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 10.15.07 AM in the recycling code). It crystallizes at the bottom.

After separating out all the colors and impurities, we can reuse our magnetic liquid 50 to 100 times, and maybe even more if we find a way in our future factory to clean it up.

Right now, we’re starting with PET polyester, but after we’ll be experimenting with other waste streams like other plastics or organic materials.

Each plastic is chemically different so we have to find the right key to unlock it.

From shirt to soda

A polyester shirt and PET bottle can also work in the same process.

What we’ve done now in collaboration with one of the big brands is develop the first line of transparent colorless bottles.

Four of these bottles are in our office. One is made from mixed-color PET bottles, another from multi-layered PET food trays, the third one is made from polyester textile fibers, and the fourth one is made from oil-based, virgin raw materials.

And we ask visitors if they can find out which is which, and they can’t.

Currently, we’re figuring out a more efficient way to get all the color out of textiles. With textiles we have to filter out far more colors from the waste stock, which means that our magnetic fluid will be satisfied earlier.

Reinventing color

The colors in the plastic are valuable too, and we’re talking with partners to find a way to recycle them.

What we retrieve now is kind of brownish – this browny thing with all colors in the mix. Can we figure out a way that we can also recycle the colors?

Maybe we can reinvent coloring, or find some way to retrieve colors out of the brown slurry. But that’s a chemical problem.

The cotton connection

You know there’s one very big organic fiber that’s asking for a lot of water, and taking up a lot of colors, and we’re wearing it, you and me right now. It’s cotton.

We’d be very, very interested if we could find the key to decolor cotton, like we did for polyester textiles.

We’re constantly renewing the cotton feedstock, which takes a lot of water. Just imagine what we could solve with this same technology.

What we’ve developed is a platform technology. It’s a kind of chemical way of working that we don’t see theoretically why it won’t work with many different materials.

But it asks research and development, and we only have a small team, only have a small budget, so that’s something for the future.

Bin to barrel

In the 1990s, there were a lot of initiatives on pyrolysis, you know going back from plastics to oil. And it’s happening again.

We think that is not a real solution because then you’re going back to a fossil fuel.

What we do is go back to the original, virgin-quality raw materials, which means you have the eternal PET bottle or you have the infinite tshirt.

Electric cars could keep oil alive

The electrification of mobility means that the oil price in the future may go down because there will be much more oil available than what’s used.

So where will it go? It might be a very cheap solution to make even more plastics.

That’s something we really need to be careful for. We know our business model is working until a low oil price of $20 a barrell.

But what happens if it goes to $10 a barrel for instance?

It’s very difficult to see the future, but what we know is once we have a foot in the market we can negotiate with policy makers to make regulations to restrict the use of oil in plastics in the future.

That may be one of the drivers where we can get to a really circular plastics value chain. At last, we may stop polluting our planet and poisoning our food chain with growing mountains of plastic waste.

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Learn more about the work that Ioniqa is doing to make our plastics endlessly and effortlessly recyclable.

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