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Nowadays, Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)-based waste streams are mainly treated by means of mechanical processes, aimed at recovering plastic solid waste (PSW) for re-use; because of the degradation and heterogeneity of PSW, only single-polymer plastics can be processed, thus excluding all the more complex and contaminated waste. Quality is the main issue when dealing with mechanically recycled products, which, in the end, could just be burned or land field disposed.
Chemical processing could be considered, instead, for complete recovering of the molecules constituting the polymer (which would be then ready to be used to produce virgin PET) but, up until now, de-polymerization approaches have not been widely adopted within industrial practice due to their inability of working continuously, their very high reaction times and, in the end, inability to achieve economic return of investment.
The value chain of PET is quite complex, and involves several steps that already links in cross-sectorial interactions multiple companies across the European and worldwide market. It is at the end of that life cycle that DEMETO proposes its innovative technology: the first feasible and sustainable (economically, environmentally and socially) industrial application of chemical treatment for reuse of PET/Polyester waste streams. Thanks to a process intensifying approach based on innovative usage of microwave radiations, DEMETO’s recycling technology will provide an indefinite life to PET, allowing to come back to its composing elements (Ethylene Glycol, EG, and Terephtalic Acid, PTA) without degrading the materials and, consequently, paving the way for a disruptive, large-scale circular economy for plastic products.
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The last 40 years have seen a constant and apparently unstoppable growth of the polymers global production, due to the widespread adoption of plastic materials in fundamental applications of both the industrial and consumer goods domains, posting a sound 5% CAGR yearly and reaching about 311M tonnes in 2014. Within such market, PET (i.e. Polyethylene terephthalate) accounts for about 20% of total plastics production (around 60M tonnes per year), representing the second most widespread polymer and probably the most flexible in terms of variety of potential applications, ranging from high-quality packaging to synthetic fibres for textiles usages (usually known as “polyester”).
This context of increasing global importance of PET inevitably raises concerns about the future sustainability of its market. Economically speaking, the main raw materials for PET production (Ethylene Glycol, EG, and Terephtalic Acid, PTA) are a direct by-product of natural gas and petroleum, thus inheriting all the problems of costs volatility that characterize that market; furthermore, from an environmental and social point of view, PET increasing diffusion points out the question of waste negative environmental externalities, highlighting the necessity of viable answers to waste generation and management
Indeed, and this is the crucial point, today PET is reused and not recycled, despite the “abuse” of terminology by the plastics waste management sector: compared for instance to a really recycled material such as aluminium, each time PET is re-used the quality of its polymers degrades, inevitably leading to landfill or combustion for energy generation.
DEMETO proposes the industrialization and demonstration at full-scale of a new industrial process which allows for the first time to recycle chemically PET bottles, food containers and even textiles in a highly profitable and environmentally sustainable way.
With this prospect of establishing a comprehensive feedback loop within the PET’s value chain, directly “from grave to cradle” (inverting on purpose the well-established wording of LCA), DEMETO offers a huge business opportunity for its proposing companies: the technology industrialized by the project enables the creation of a new source of raw materials for the plastics market that has the guarantee of strong advantage over the currently existing main alternatives: direct monomers production from fossil fuel and mechanical elaboration of waste to offer R-PET.
The core mission of the project is therefore to enable chemical de-polymerization of PET at industrial scale thanks to its microwave-based process intensification, closing its life-cycle through a circular economy value chain, reducing plastics market dependency from natural resources and improving drastically the environmental footprint of PET production by revolutionizing the paradigm of its recycling.
TECHNICAL OBJECTIVE: build a full and industrial-grade pilot plant of the de-polymerization process, having a gr3n Reactive Unite at its core, while optimizing the purification steps.
STRATEGIC OBJECTIVE: exploit immediately the mature market of the packaging waste, while preparing the technology transfer to the huge and unexplored polyester/textile value chain.
ENVIRONMENTAL OBJECTIVE: enable full circular economcy approach to reduce by more than 50% the environmental footprint of PET production and usage.
The core concept of DEMETO’s innovative PET recycling process has been designed and refined to reach the current stage of development through a certain number of key milestones:
DEMETO proposes a highly innovative approach to the Process Intensification of the chemical recycling reaction (de-polymerization) of PET plastic waste, based on the adoption of microwave radiations as energetic catalyser, to reduce reaction time and the complexity of the purification steps of PTA, while increasing productivity through a continuous process (instead of the batch ones typical of the industrial state-of-the-art).
Already patented at international level and validated at different TRLs, the major strength of DEMETO’s core concept is the adoption of a full process approach that, embedding at its heart the process intensifying MW-based reaction, then proposes a completely self-contained post-processing unit whose outputs, apart from the virgin-grade EG and PTA raw materials, will generate directly feedstock for the overall de-polymerization process.
Implemented in the pilot plant that DEMETO will realize, this overall concept is what guarantees the high flexibility and huge productivity-to-size ratios that the project will achieve at demonstration stage.
Taking into account the project overall goals, in order to guarantee the objectives achievement and to efficiently and effectively manage it, a coherent work-plan over 36 months has been devised.
DEMETO work-plan is therefore organized through 9 work-packages (WPs): WP1 is dedicated to project management, WP9 to exploitation and dissemination, while WPs from 2 to 8 implements the project technological advancements, with WP7 dedicated to the realization of the pilot plant and WP8 specifically devoted to the demonstration of the project approach effectiveness.
Processi Innovativi, a company owned by KT - Kinetics Technology, provides process services for the chemical, petrochemical, oil & gas environmental and energy industries, ranging from basic activities through to high quality technical consulting services. Processi Innovativi has a team of specialists, ready to work for developing next generation technologies, to offer new products to the market, to increase productivity and product quality and to improve on the end results.
Focused on the innovative development of a chemical process, the industrial role of PI is the key to move from a conceptual/experimental stage to a proper structural scheme, the first step to turn an innovation project into a real business opportunity and determine the necessary investment and expected return.
As a no-profit technology transfer small company expert in supporting both start-up and SMEs in bringing innovative solutions to the market, Synesis brings to DEMETO the following competences: Conception and design of advanced mechatronic systems and machines; Development of optimal control techniques for manufacturing and process systems; Modelling and design of simulation for hybrid (discrete continuous) processes; Analysis and design of life-cycle sustainability methodologies and tools for manufacturing and process industry, both product and process driven; Design of innovative business models for the technological products it develops or helps developing.
ACTOR is a company specialized in the modelling, design and implementation of advanced controllers for the process industry to assure that they reach the upper limits of attainable performance. This is achieved thanks to the following specific competences: Technical specification for migration projects and follow-up on investments on new DCS - Distributed Control Systems; DCS architecture/ intelligent network design; Logical schemes building for process automation and control while calibrating technical specifications; DCS projects management (e.g. time, costs, teams) while meeting contractual requirements;; testing (e.g. FAT - Factory Acceptance Test); commissioning and start-up (e.g. SAT - Site Acceptance Test).
Combining process and engineering know-how with its manufacturing capabilities, 3V Tech is one of the most advanced providers of process solutions and process equipment in the market, being capable of supporting full R&D-to-industrialization project thanks to state-of-the-art pilot plants at it centres, optimally equipped for testing in the fields of batch filtration & drying, evaporation, crystallization, distillation and drying, highly-viscosity products and wet Oxidation.
Thanks to sophisticated development methodologies based on simulation and on the commercial availability of electronic components operating at higher frequencies and with a higher degree of integration, the laboratory for Telecom Telemetry and High Frequency of SUPSI-DTI, in line with the current market needs and through a careful outlook towards future developments, offers applied research in favor of small and medium enterprises(SMEs) in the fields of wired and wireless telecom, security and in the design of high frequency sensors and electronic systems.
Within DTU university in Denmark, a department is specifically focused on the engineering of advanced chemical and biochemical processes, working closely with industry to obtain research results that are applicable to industry and society. In DEMETO, the so-called “Pilot Plant” research group will be specifically involved in the activities of the project, thanks to its extended experience focusing on unit operations, reaction engineering, process control, process and plant design, instrumentation, automation and industrial measuring technology, but also topics such as scale-up and scale-down and batch versus continuous processes.
PETCIA is a PET mechanical recycler, a SME that produces RPET flakes recycled from post-consumers PET bottle waste collected from Spanish municipalities. In being an important stakeholder of the local post-consumer recovery network and also because of its being part of a European group of other equivalent companies in other Countries, PETCIA is the perfect candidate representing the most interesting customer segments for DEMETO0s de-polymerization technology.
NEOGROUP is one of the biggest manufacturers of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) granules in Europe, located in Lithuania near the Klaipeda port. Over 308 thousand tons, which compose 12 per cent of the European production, are manufactured and sold during a year.
EuPC is the EU-level Trade Association, based in Brussels, representing European Plastics Converters. Plastics converters (sometimes called "Processors") are the heart of the plastics industry. They manufacture plastics semi-finished and finished products for an extremely wide range of industrial and consumer markets - the automotive electrical and electronic, packaging, construction and healthcare industries, to name but a few. EuPC now totals about 51 European Plastics Converting national and European industry associations, it represents close to 50,000 companies, producing over 45 million tonnes of plastic products every year.
The Fricke and Mallah GmbH, founded in 1995, is one of the leading German suppliers of microwave ovens for industry and research. In the field of microwave tunnels and chamber, FMMT’s machines installed basis is over 800 kW total power. The main applications for the ovens are found in the ceramic, casting, wood, food, pharmaceutical and chemical industry. To make the microwave application very effective the development and test of the ovens are accompanied by a close dialogue with the customer. The used microwave generators and antennas are from own production and designed for microwave powers up to 20 kW. They are also supplied to several oven manufacturers in Europe and USA. A further activity is the development of power electronics and microwave measurement equipment.
The European Outdoor Group is an association that exists to represent the common interests of the European outdoor industry. It was founded in 2003 by 19 of the world’s largest outdoor companies, who recognised the need for a cohesive, cross border approach to representation of the outdoor sector. In a world of increasing internationalism, legislation, environment, the media and trade are all now multinational by nature. The combined strength of its members, and a close cooperation with national outdoor associations, provides EOG with an extremely powerful force to represent the European outdoor industry in a constructive and positive manner.
H & M Hennes & Mauritz AB is a Swedish multinational clothing-retail company, known for its fast-fashion clothing for men, women, teenagers and children. H&M and its associated brands operate in 62 countries with over 4,000 stores and, as of 2015, employ around 132,000 people. It is the second largest global clothing retailer, just behind Spain-based Inditex (parent company of Zara). Strongly committed to the life-cycle sustainability of its products (H&M’s stores have collected more than 34,000 tonnes of clothing for reuse and recycling since 2013), the company has been investigating for several year different potential approaches to a more effective recycling of polyester.
Strategically speaking, the business deployment and exploitation approach that we have conceived for our de-polymerization technology will start by focusing on Europe, which currently absorbs 15% of the global production of plastic. The reason for this choice is due to the proximity of the market but, most of all, to the fact that Europe has one of the highest recycling rate in the world, recovering about 54-57% of post-consumer plastic (the global average is slightly above 40%). This means that, even considering only the treatment of coloured baled battles, the available market size for DEMETO’s technology would correspond to more than 60 plants in Europe.
Now, these figures are already quite impressive, but the real potential for disruptively changing the market is elsewhere: the synthetic fibres domain! Almost 70% of the annual production of virgin PET is absorbed by the textile value chain, for a total annual consumption of polyester around 40 Mt (see section 2.1.1 for further details). The current issue here is that, since there exists no way to recycle PET from post-consumer textile waste, nobody has ever invested in a recovery value chain and, therefore, all of that amount is currently destined to landfill disposal and/or incineration.
Doing specific math on this second scenario is clearly impossible at this stage because too many elements are missing, but DEMETO will dedicate a specific effort to deepen the understanding of this situation (see work-plan in section 3) and also our exploitation strategy is already considering these two “waves” of commercial deployment.
The industrial exploitation of DEMETO’s de-polymerization plants is based on the strategic synergy between the owners and inventors of the technology, gr3n, and one or more EPC contractors capable of reaching the huge global TAM, starting with Processi Innovativi (and Coordinator) as privileged partner to access the market.
Through a two-stage approach, where the first year after the end of the project is dedicated to the final industrialization (from TRL6-7 to TRL9), gr3n and PI will progressively explore the market thanks to a supply-relationship, where GR3N will manufacture, sell and provide maintenance services for its core reactors, while PI will deal with the EPC of the full de-polymerization plants.
During both the early (industrialization) and mature (commercialization) stages, the pilot plant of DEMETO will be an essential element, since it will play the role of both internal test-bed for the optimization of the process and “marketing” tool to showcase the technology to interested partners.
The approach for PET chemical de-polymerization proposed by DEMETO is a potential market game changer, in that it enables a new production of high-quality materials such as virgin-grade EG and PTA by using post-consumer waste. This technological breakthrough can become a European opportunity to gain a position of dominance on the future market of plastic production, even with respect to China and the eastern countries, while guaranteeing positive effects both in social and innovation-related terms.
In fact, analysing the whole PET value chain and how each composing step contributes quantitatively to its final market price, it is quite evident that feedstock costs make up for almost 90% of PET price, inducing a dependency that poses a very high risk on stand-alone producers’ profitability, especially in periods with “low crude environment” such as the current one.
Coupled with the fact that the global production of PET is actually dominated by Asian countries, this means that through DEMETO a huge opportunity exists for Europe: exploiting the existing effectiveness of its post-consumer waste recovery network, investing on an even better one (especially on polyester fibres) and thus gaining a position of relevance in the market feedstock supply for PET production, with a positive export balance with respect to China.
Let us start with short but sheer and direct numbers: through the preliminary LCA study of DEMETO, it has been possible to estimate that de-polymerization process, compared to the environmental and energetic impact of current monomers’ production, guarantees a radical improvement of the life-cycle environmental impact, with -38% of CO2/kg and -67% of MJ/kg. These numbers alone would be already enough to justify the huge positive environmental impact of DEMETO’s results, but they do not convey the real opportunity that we could propose to completely change the everyday life of the whole society.
To understand how that could happen, we need however to take a step back and analyse a few numbers. In 2015 an estimated 32% of plastics escaped the collection system globally. Plastic packaging is particularly prone to leakage due to its small size, high rate of dispersion and low residual value. This means that today, at least 8 million tonnes of plastics (of which estimates suggest that plastic packaging represents the majority) leak into the ocean — just one of the ‘sinks’ for leaked plastics — every year.
While the total economic impact is still unclear, initial studies suggest that it is at least in the billions of euros. The report Valuing Plastic conservatively estimates the costs of the negative externalities of plastics in the oceans to be at least €12bn . Even in Europe, where leakage is relatively limited, potential costs for coastal and beach cleaning alone could reach €630M per year.
And these are just economic figures. In addition to them, there are potential adverse impacts on human livelihoods and health, food chains and other essential economic and societal systems. The negative externalities also include entanglement and ingestion of plastics by various species. According to STAP, ‘more than 260 species are already known to be affected by plastic debris through entanglement or ingestion’ .
Clearly, these are the overall numbers linked to plastics usage in general, but we saw before that PET is one of the mostly used and, in addition, one of the fastest growing ones. DEMETO’s technology is the first one that would allow to finally close the recycling loop for PET, with a potential impact on environment and society at large that would be enormous.