The world has a plastic waste problem. That’s probably not news to you.
Standard recycling programs can help, but a huge shortcoming with them is that so much plastic isn’t readily recyclable with their methods. That’s why you can only put certain types of plastic in your recycling bin.
As a result, here in the U.S. only about 5% of plastic waste is recycled each year, while about 9% is incinerated and 86% is landfilled. That means about 30 million tons of plastic winds up in American landfills every year.
Alterra Energy of Akron, Ohio, has a new solution that uses patented thermal liquefaction technology to remake the plastic wastes entirely. The company began as a pilot plant for proof of concept in 2009, and commissioned its full-scale commercial facility in 2020. In January 2021, Neste Corporation, the world’s biggest producer of renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel, acquired a minority stake in the privately-held firm, which is majority-owned by financial investors.
“Today, not a lot of plastic is recycled,” said Fred Schmuck, Alterra’s CEO. “What is, is mostly mechanically recycled, where the plastic is shredded and melted for re-use. But that limits its use because of the complexity to recycle laminates as well as fillers and colorants that were added to the original plastics, and because most of it’s not suitable for food applications. We work on splitting the molecular structure–breaking down the polymer to produce the building blocks to make new plastics. Every chemical company out there has ambitious goals for using recycled materials.” The final product that come from Alterra’s process can be used as recycled feedstock for plastic production.
One of the other challenges with mechanical recycling is that it can’t handle all mixed and multi-layered plastics, so recyclers are forced to do further separation of their infeed streams before processing. That’s not the case with Alterra’s process. “We can take mixed and multi-layered plastics with fillers and colorants,” Schmuck said. Most of what we use is #2, #4, #5, #6, and some #7 plastics. Our goal is to capture another 30-40% of the plastic waste stream by 2030.”
“We’re not here to compete with mechanical recycling,” added Jeremy DeBenedictis, President of Alterra Energy. “Chemical recycling is complementary to that.” However, the company does aim to replace some other plastic disposal methods such as landfilling and incineration. “Our Akron facility processes 100,000 pounds per day that would’ve otherwise been landfilled,” DeBenedictis continued. “We look at our process as commercial-scale. It’s proven, modular and can be replicated anywhere.”
The focus now is on exactly that, replicating the process across the world. “We’re still nascent,” said Schmuck. “We’re focused on scaling up. The second half of this decade, we aspire to have between one and two million tons per year of capacity up and running.”
“Neste is one of the most sustainable companies in the world,” DeBenedictis added. “They’re not only supporting deployment of our technology across industry, but we have a joint development agreement as well, so we can leverage Neste’s expertise.”
Alterra’s ultimate goal is to break substantial new ground in tackling the problem of plastic waste around the world. “To me, it’s about going back to the future of recycling,” Schmuck said. “My compliments to existing technologies, but it’s crucial for us to move away from single-use plastic and virgin oil. We’ve created a new solution and an opportunity. What we’re doing is diverting valuable used plastics from being landfilled and reducing our need for natural resources in the remanufacturing of new plastic products–it’s a very efficient use of existing industrial capabilities to replace virgin oil.”
“Look at your own trash can at home,” DeBenedictis said. “When you finish your yogurt, or your salad, or your butter, the container goes in the trash can. But all of that has value. Plastic is made to be reused. We want to help unlock ways to reuse all of our plastics. But we all have to do our part. My family of five has been doing a recycling experiment for six months, and we’ve been able to reduce our weekly curbside trash down to one little bag. What if we could get every household in the U.S. to do something similar? This would be a game change in accelerating the shift to a truly circular economy.”
“If you look at the entire recycling value chain,” said Schmuck, “this kind of advanced recycling can make an enormous difference.”