This company has figured out how to close the loop on plastic recycling
Up until recently, plastic had been so pervasive that it slipped under the radar of the public mind. But lately, there has been a global uproar against the ubiquitous stuff. MOoW is also part of the chorus concerned with this issue, especially single-use plastic, a material that takes seconds to produce, several minutes to use, and hundreds of years to breakdown. In addition to discovering beautiful art made out of plastic waste, we have sought out Loop Industries, Canadian innovators that are disrupting the business-as-usual linear economy.
One of the core strategies for reaching a trash-free world lies in the sustainable circular economy, a concept where the product supply chains do not externalize waste into the environment. Aside from eliminating unnecessary plastic and circulating plastic back into the economy, technological innovation is a key aspect of the new plastic economy. The logic goes that if the world is so addicted to the convenience of plastic, how can we continue using it without destroying the environment in the process? Loop Industries, a Montreal start-up founded by Daniel Solomita in 2015, is the first company in the world to come up with a viable circular economy model for plastic recycling. They claim to be decoupling plastic from fossil fuels ‘by creating new PET from plastic waste.’ But why is Loop so innovative? Let us first look a little deeper into the story behind this shiny and bright material...
There is no dispute that we are creating a plastic pollution crisis. To recall an unfortunate cliche, studies say that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. This comes with no surprise as the equivalent to one disposal truck full of plastic waste ends up in the ocean every single minute. When delving deeper into the issues, the not so micro issue of microplastics emerges as a central part of the problem. A recent study has found that toxic microplastics are not only present in sea animals but also estimated to be in over half the global human population. Yet from an economic point of view it is also clear that plastic is a cheap and light-weight material with a wide spectrum of uses, especially consumer packaging, and has become essential to our current hyper-convenient lifestyles.
But what about recycling? According to the National Geographic, of the 8.4 metric tonnes of plastic that has been produced since its inception, only 11% has been recycled. According to the Guardian, the top six drinks companies today only use about 7% recycled plastic for their bottle production. The reasons for this may be surprising for some. Plastic generally diminishes in quality when recycled, unlike glass or aluminium which can keep going around the supply chain an almost infinite number of times. The classic recycling process for plastic bottles would be to sort them, wash them and simply melt them down into plastic pellets of lower quality that can be transformed into clothing fiber or insulation after which they cannot be further recycled. Furthermore, the process is expensive, time-intensive and complicated so many countries are not able to recycle plastic unlike other more lucrative materials.
But it is not all doom and gloom. This is where Loop Industries steps in. The young enterprise has created a ground-breaking zero energy piece of technology that can recycle waste plastic that results in the same quality plastic ready for further market use. The founder Solomita says that the curiosity that drove Loop began in his garage while he was experimenting with the idea that ‘someone else’s trash is someone else’s gold’.
So how does the technology work? Transcending previous recycling systems, Loop’s ‘rPET’ (recycled polyethylene terephthalate) technology is able to process all forms of PET waste and also polyester fiber by removing the colors, waste and dyes. This is why they can process all sorts of plastics that are normally difficult to recycle such as polyester fiber.
Then this plastic feedstock is separated into two chemicals called Dimethyl Terephthalate (DMT) and Mono Ethylene Glycol (MEG). This so-called depolymerization process is done with zero energy input. In order to make ‘virgin plastic’ again, the DMT and MEG are re-polymerized to produce high-quality recycled PET plastic that meets FDA requirements for food-grade use.
The only downside is that the technology as it stands is more expensive than conventional non-recycled plastic production so either the companies or the consumers will have to absorb the higher costs, unless governments step in to ban non-recycled plastic. The prospects are looking good though, as Loop Industries has come a long way since its conception in a garage. The start-up is clearly on its way to becoming a prominent game-changer on an industrial scale as they are working with big plastic names such as Evian, Coca Cola and PepsiCo. to set the plastic revolution into motion before it’s too late.
Editor’s note: While Made Out of WHAT celebrates all innovation that addresses the grave problem of plastic waste, especially single-use consumer items, we also strongly urge all manufacturers and consumers to be mindful of their purchases, reduce and eliminate plastic in their choices and habits where possible to support the transition to a zero waste world.