BP invests £19.5m in innovative pilot plant for 'unrecyclable' plastics

BP's Petrochemicals arm has unveiled plans for a multi-million dollar investment in an innovative recycling technology designed to create a second life for "previously unrecyclable" packaging. 

Pictured: Bales of crushed blue PET bottles. Image: Michal Manas/CC-BY-3.0

Pictured: Bales of crushed blue PET bottles. Image: Michal Manas/CC-BY-3.0

Called BP Infinia, the technology enables PET plastic waste which is either considered low value or is not detected in traditional recycling facilities due to its colour to be recycled.

BP claims this focus could be particularly useful in diverting plastic bottles and trays from landfill and incineration. Of the 27 million tonnes of PET used annually in beverage and rigid food packaging, 23 million tonnes is used in bottles, and less than 60% of those bottles, by weight, are recycled.

According to BP, Infinia could be the solution to the remaining 40% of those bottles, as the process results in a feedstock which is “interchangeable” with virgin, fossil-fuel-based plastics. This quality means the feedstock can be used in new, food-grade packaging, which, in turn, is recyclable through Infinia.

Infinia works by depolymerising plastics, breaking the materials down into monomers – namely terephthalic acid and monoethylene glycol. The monomers are then purified, ready for reuse.

BP has backed the innovation with a $25m (£19.5m) investment, which will be used to develop and launch a pilot recycling plant in Naperville, Illinois. The facility is due to open in the latter half of 2020. Should it prove successful and further plants be opened, BP believes the technology could deal with billions of pieces of food and beverage packaging per year.

“BP is committed to fully developing and commercialising this technology; we have long experience and a proven track record of scaling technology and we firmly believe that this innovation can ultimately contribute to making all types of polyester waste infinitely recyclable,” BP’s vice president of petrochemicals technology, licensing and business development Charles Damianides said.

Closing the loop or a downward spiral?

With public and policy interest still firmly fixed on the global plastics pollution problem in the wake of Blue Planet 2, BP is among several major corporates to have invested in innovative recycling technologies in recent months.

Waste infrastructure firm Peel Environmental, energy-from-waste firm Waste2Tricity and utility PowerHouse energy have jointly invested £130m to develop a network of 10 plastic-to-hydrogen recycling plants across the UK, for example.

Elsewhere, Tesco has this year inked a deal with Swindon-based recycling firm Recycling Technologies to trial an innovative system that converts soft plastics back into oil, while Nestle and Procter and Gamble (P&G) have made considerable investments into US-based recycling innovation firm PureCycle, which purports to restore recycled plastic streams to 'near-virgin' quality.

Given that recycling rates for plastics have stagnated in recent years in the UK and beyond, these investments have widely been touted as potential solutions.

But consumer trust in recycling is also falling, with only 9% of all plastics ever made having been recycled successfully, and with the global plastics recycling industry continually being found to be rife with waste crimes and human rights abuses.

As a result, calls for businesses not just to develop recyclable plastic and recycling technologies, but to move away from plastics altogether, have been mounting. Packaging industry body Pro Carton’s recent survey of 7,000 consumers, for example, found that 92% would prefer to buy a plastic-free unit of their favourite product than one housed in plastic, and that 82% believe the amount of plastics brands use to house food and drinks should be “drastically reduced”.

Responding to BP's Infinia announcement, Greenpeace's oceans campaign director John Hocevar said: “This is a desperate attempt from a plastic polluter to ensure it can continue making profits off of plastics.

"This attempt to greenwash the continued use of toxic plastics is par for the course. If the company truly cared about keeping our planet free from single-use plastics, it would stop producing them rather than proclaiming a yet to be built pilot facility will solve the problem.” 

Sarah George



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