Polystyrene: Focus on Recycling

The recycling rate for polystyrene is still quite low. So Total, Citeo, Syndifrais and Saint-Gobain have joined forces to create a polystyrene recycling channel in France. They aim to show very soon that recycling polystyrene is both feasible and profitable.

The Paradoxes of Plastic

Plastics, or polymers, are integral to our day-to-day lives, because of their many applications and the convenience they offer for modern living. As a result, demand for plastics is rising, from 220 million tons a decade ago to 350 million tons today and a projected 450 million tons a decade from now. And since items made from them are lighter than those made from glass, steel, wood or cardboard, plastics are also helping us reduce our carbon footprint. Without plastic, packaging would be four times heavier, and greenhouse gas emissions would increase by more than 60%1.

Yet plastic waste is still poorly managed and is harming the environment: 8 million tons of plastic finds its way into the world's oceans each year2. So developing solutions for responsible end-of-life management of plastics is a major challenge for the industry.

"In fact, plastic waste can also be viewed as a resource that has value," says Jean Viallefont, Total's vice president, Polymers Europe. "For that reason, we firmly believe that expanding recycling represents a real business opportunity and that the plastics industry must move toward a circular business model."

The demonstrator project for polystyrene recycling is based in Carling, France.

Recycling: Why Polystyrene Has Lagged Behind

Polystyrene is found in all sorts of everyday items, particularly packaging such as yogurt containers and food trays. In France, it's estimated that 120,000 tons of polystyrene packaging reaches the market each year. Polystyrene is also found in buildings (as insulation) and home appliances and used as wedges.

Yet polystyrene is small fry among the many polymers in the market. "European production is less than 2 million tons annually, compared to 10 million tons of polypropylene and 15 million tons of polyethylene," notes Jean Viallefont. The fact is, the most common plastics currently have the highest recycling rates. Polystyrene, produced in smaller volumes, is not widely sorted and recycled. "The challenge has been to show that there's a financial benefit to recycling polystyrene."

▪ For more on the subject: Climate and Waste, Plastic's Two Challenges

Four Partners, One Recycling Channel

In June 2018, as part of their voluntary commitments under the French government's Circular Economy Roadmap, Total, Citeo3, Saint-Gobain and Syndifrais3 teamed up to help develop a polystyrene recycling channel in France and demonstrate its viability. "Recycling is a complicated issue," comments Jean Viallefont. "It requires know-how in a wide range of fields, from ecodesign to waste sorting and collection, plus the ability to develop new recycling technology and find markets for recyclate. Working together, participants in the value chain can identify actual, viable recycling solutions."

The four partners plan to make the most of the synergies they can create. Citeo and Syndifrais are focusing on the upstream end of the recycling chain. Citeo is promoting polystyrene waste sorting and collection as part of France's expanded household waste sorting program, with the goal of boosting the amount of polystyrene waste collected, while Syndifrais is working on eco-designed packaging that's easier to recycle and on ways to sort and prepare polystyrene. Total, meanwhile, is contributing its industrial expertise with facilities and recycling innovative technology: the polystyrene will be treated at its plants in Carling, France and Feluy, Belgium. And Saint-Gobain is drawing on its familiarity with the insulation market to help validate commercial and technical specifications for recycled polystyrene.

▪ For more on the subject: 10 Million Tons of Carbon Not Emitted

A Circular Channel That's Innovative and Profitable

Total's recycling technology is based on an innovation that was tested in late 2017 at the Carling site. "The principle is simple but novel," says Viallefont. "The waste is dissolved in styrene — the monomer used to produce polystyrene — and then fed into the production process. We successfully produced 60 tons of polystyrene containing 10% packaging recyclate, with the same properties as virgin polystyrene. That's a world first."

Production will ramp up in 2019. "We'll have produced several thousand tons of polystyrene at Carling and Feluy that contains at least 20% recycled polystyrene, in the next 12 months."

Currently, the resulting pellets are made into insulation materials or razor handles and other products. "The recyclate isn't yet suitable for food contact," explains Viallefont. Moreover, while virgin polystyrene is clear, recycled polystyrene is colored, "which not all customers are willing to accept." Eliminating those obstacles is essential to expand the range of potential markets for recycled polystyrene and make it an economically viable process.

"Our R&D teams are hard at work on those two issues. Our expertise in polymers and our ability to innovate can contribute genuine value added. We're a pioneer in developing innovative polymers and intend to lead the way in polymer recycling as well."

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1 According to a June 2010 study by Denkstatt AG, The impact of plastics on life cycle energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in Europe.


3 In French only.

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