Certain plastic materials can be incredibly difficult to recycle. The EU-funded MultiCycle project has developed a pilot plant that can recycle complex plastic materials. This helps the EU move towards a circular economy, allowing citizens to benefit from plastics in an environmentally friendly way. 

Plastics deliver value through convenient, versatile and lightweight consumer products, as well as advanced performance in high-end applications such as cars. Despite their utility however, it is clear that the single-use, linear consumption of plastics is incompatible with Europe’s transition towards a circular economy. This model prioritises the reuse and recycling of resources, in order to reduce waste and retain as much value as possible.

When it comes to recycling plastics, some progress has been made. For example, 41.5 % of plastic packaging waste was recycled in 2018, and in seven EU member states, more than half of the plastic packaging waste generated was recycled. This is still not sufficient to achieve full circularity. Furthermore, it is critical that recycling technologies keep up to speed with new materials that are entering the market.

“A good example of this is plastic-based multi-materials,” said MultiCycle project coordinator Ana Maria Lopez from IRIS Technology Solutions, Spain.  “These are products constructed with mixtures of different plastics, or where plastics are used in combination with other functional materials like reinforcing fibres. These materials present a challenge to existing recycling infrastructure and technology.”

Advanced plastics recycling

To this end, the EU-funded MultiCycle project was unveiled with the aim of developing an industrial recycling pilot plant. This plant focuses on two important industrial segments that present challenges to recyclers: multilayer packaging/flexible films and fibre-reinforced thermoplastic composites, of the sort used in the automotive sector. 

These materials were gathered from post-manufacturing and post-consumer waste streams from across Europe. The concept, says Lopez, was to reflect some of the best and worst in class sorting systems currently in practice, to ensure that the pilot process delivered a realistic market performance.

“The MultiCycle process we developed combines two core advanced technologies,” said Lopez. “The first is an innovative recycling approach, which uses environmentally benign, reusable solvents to selectively dissolve individual plastics from the multi-material feedstock. These are then recovered as solid recycled material suitable for making new, value-adding plastic products.”

Second, the MultiCycle system integrates a real-time AI visual monitoring system, designed and implemented by IRIS Technology Solutions, to recognise the different types and quantities of plastics present in the feedstock. This enables operators to make informed decisions about the processing conditions required for the selective dissolution stage.

The pilot plant is currently operational, and is producing a range of recycled single plastic streams. These are being evaluated as potential feedstocks in the circular economy for plastics.

In addition to the strong technical progress achieved, MultiCycle’s project partners have also been active in seeking to secure patent protection in key areas including advanced process monitoring. This is critical in encouraging businesses to invest in research and development, and to taking calculated risks in innovative new technologies. So far, three  patent applications have been successfully submitted based on results arising from MultiCycle.

Closing the loop

Taking a longer-term perspective, the MultiCycle project has made a valuable contribution to Europe’s transition to a circular economy. “If society is to support sustainable future lifestyles based upon a shared quality of life without breaching crucial global warming targets, then we need to innovate in ways that drive resource efficiency and decarbonisation,” said Lopez. 

“I think that the MultiCycle project has made the technical, business, and environmental case for closing the loop for important classes of materials that are currently difficult to recycle. We hope that the project can be a model for how similar approaches can be applied in other fields. This will help Europe to retain material value and skilled jobs, without depleting our planetary resources.”