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The mechanical and chemical recycling of plastics is not new. Around 30 years ago there was considerable activity by companies such as Akzo Nobel, BASF, BP Chemicals, Elf-Atochem, Enichem, Solvay and many more, some working in collaboration and also with funding from the European Commission. While technologies were developed, even up to demonstration scale, the upstream infrastructure and directing legislation were not well placed at that time. In recent technology development has accelerated. There is a widespread and well-developed mechanical recycling industry, especially for polyester. Plastics are being chemically recycled via pyrolysis and gasification at different scales, but generally small compared to virgin plastics manufacturing. Novel solutions such as polymer dissolution are gaining traction, as well as decoupling technologies, e.g., for polyesters. Upstream plastics sorting technologies have improved, especially in the range of polymers they can identify and in addition, fabrication technologies have evolved to minimise the range of plastics used in making for example household items.
Looking to the future, ‘What do we need from plastics recycling technology?’ There are many answers to this question. Technologies need scaling up cost effectively with novel reactor designs. A current weakness in plastics recycling is its carbon footprint. ‘Can this be reduced and how? Maybe it goes hand in glove with scale?’ Catalysis is being combined with recycling to make chemical building blocks or transportation fuel blending components. So while setting the scene as to where we are, this paper is looking to the future of what technologies we need and why, with at least initial indications of how we meet tomorrow’s challenges in plastics recycling technology as well as the impact it may have on how the industry operates.