• By James Haw
  • Features
  • Smart Manufacturing (Industry 4.0)

The mission to accomplish advanced plastics recycling keeps the automation pro responsible for project/program execution focused and committed.

I remember it like it was yesterday. In late 2020, I got a text from Dustin Olson, now the current CEO of PureCycle Technologies, Inc. He and I had worked together at a local Houston refinery about 18 years prior. He wanted to tell me about a new technological breakthrough in plastics recycling and he wanted advice on current automation technologies that could be applied to this new technology. The ensuing conversation touched on how we could deploy automation to set the company up for long-term success by avoiding “digital transformation” and essentially being “born digital” from the get-go.

I set out to write a white paper on the subject. I jotted down some of my own ideas, as well as the solutions to many of the problems I had encountered over my 31 years as an automation professional, and I asked several colleagues to weigh in. The result marked the beginning of a remarkable opportunity to work at PureCycle and implement something I never thought I would get to in my career—an automated industrial process using cutting-edge foundational technologies to help create a “planned digital community” that would make costly transformations less likely, or at the very least, easier to implement.

The journey since has been incredible. We’ve assembled an amazing team of tenacious automation professionals, and our vision has drawn the attention of industry professionals who have partnered with us to make this dream a reality—all at an implementation cost of approximately one-tenth of what we would likely incur if we were forced to get the same result by transforming legacy systems. I’ll tell you how we did it.

Developing the digital ecosystem

First, we had to develop a digital ecosystem with interfaces to other business systems. Within this ecosystem, we create a true digital thread such that each system digitally extracts or writes information in a consistent way. In other words, the entire digital footprint for the entire operation is coordinated, designed, and built like a planned community—or more precisely, a planned digital community.

Why? Because mismatches in applications or systems, and the integration work undertaken to force them to work with one another after the fact, have historically increased budget and schedule dramatically. This also has resulted in a unique system requiring increased maintenance and development over its entire lifecycle, i.e., the “transformation” we want to avoid.

What it means for us in the short term is that we get all the great things that provide value now, all from the beginning: Highly integrated basic process control systems; digital twins; high-performance graphics; alarm rationalization, management, and adherence to alarm philosophy from the start; ergonomic control room and building design; building management; central hub support to worldwide facilities; mobility concepts as part of our culture; harnessing artificial intelligence to reach higher levels of autonomy; etc.

But while my love of the craft of automation is what drew me to PureCycle, what keeps me dedicated to its success is the company’s mission of revolutionizing plastic waste into a renewable resource by utilizing a ground-breaking, patented recycling process.

PureCycle’s process dissolves polypropylene (PP) plastic waste feedstock using a proprietary solvent, which then separates color, odor, and impurities from the PP to transform it into an ultra-pure recycled (UPR) resin (shown at the beginning of this article). After spending 10 years of my career in virgin plastics production, knowing that there was a technology that could stem the tide of landfilled plastic waste (or worse, that waste which makes its way into the ecosystem where it was otherwise not intended to end up) motivated me in a way I had not yet experienced over the entirety of my career.

Groundbreaking technology

Why is this technology so special? Let’s break it down.
Plastics are made from oil, more specifically, from petrochemicals derived from oil. According to the European Association of Plastics Recycling, those plastics are produced at a worldwide rate of 810 billion pounds every year. The oil majors’ claim that the plastics industry will maintain the rate of growth it has shown since 2010, which is around 4 percent per year. The question becomes, does it have to? Can the recycling industry reduce the overall amount of oil needed to produce the virgin plastics that people need in their daily lives, and at the same time keep it out of landfills and waterways? In other words, can the recycling industry help plastics production become sustainable?

Of the 810 billion pounds of plastic produced globally every year, only about 9% on average is recycled, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The chart (Figure 1) shows approximately what is produced and recycled annually; the type of plastic is usually imprinted somewhere on the item inside a triangle. (Source: “The world of plastics, in numbers,” The Conversation.)

Figure 1. Of the 810 billion pounds of plastic produced globally every year, only about 9%25 on average is recycled, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Figure 1. Of the 810 billion pounds of plastic produced globally every year, only about 9%25 on average is recycled, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Considering only polypropylene, of the 159.5 B Lbs. produced annually worldwide, only about 5.6% is recycled (according to “Solvent-Based Recycling of Waste Plastics,” PEP Report 199H, IHS Markit/S&P Global, October 2021). And almost all of that is mechanically recycled, meaning it’s cleaned, and then re-compounded into a grey or black plastic (Figure 2). This recycled plastic has a very limited number of use cases like deck boards, paint cans, trash cans, and other applications that don’t really rely on a specific color or residual-odor specification.

Figure 2. Mechanically recycled plastic is cleaned and re-compounded into a grey or black plastic (right), which has a limited number of use cases that don’t require a specific color or residual-odor specification.
Figure 2. Mechanically recycled plastic is cleaned and re-compounded into a grey or black plastic (right), which has a limited number of use cases that don’t require a specific color or residual-odor specification.

But what if that same plastic could be recycled in such a way that it could be purified—or taken to a “virgin-like” state—making it reusable in all its original use cases?

Enter PureCycle. PureCycle takes post-consumer and post-industrial polypropylene waste and purifies it. The innovative process essentially cleans the plastic at the molecular level. Feed prep works to remove biological impurities from the plastic waste. The purification process is designed to remove color and other additives by scrubbing the molecule, resulting in an ultra-pure, virgin-like polypropylene that can be used in all its original use cases. 

What impact can this technology have on overall plastic production? It has been suggested that plastic imposes an annual cost on society almost equal to its total market value each year. Costs to remove it from waterways, and the original carbon footprint to produce it (and to recycle it) make up most of this external cost.

If this is true—and it seems plausible—why wouldn’t we want to exploit the one recycling technology that had the power to reduce oil production and reduce plastic pollution? If a technology exists that can clean plastic that has already been produced, then why would we need to produce it again? That would be like throwing away your reusable plates and buying new ones every day, instead of just washing them!

There are those who reject the idea that plastics recycling will ever be sustainable. They continue to make blanket statements like, “recycling will never work." Their solution is often reduced to a proposal to eliminate plastics, which is not realistic and fails to prescribe an alternative that provides some of the same benefits of plastics.

Life without plastics

Let’s look back over the last 70 years on what our lives would be like and how we would suffer without plastics.

Plastics helped win WWII for the Allies. Because polyethylene was found to have very low-loss properties at very high frequency radio waves, Great Britain suspended the commercial distribution of polyethylene at the outbreak of World War II and a new process was secretly developed to produce insulation for UHF and SHF coaxial cables of radar sets. Development of radar greatly expanded in September of 1936, and the design and installation of aircraft detection and tracking stations along the East and South coasts of England was realized just in time for the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Without this technology, the Royal Air Force would not have had the vital advance information to know where to deploy their aircraft; they didn’t have the vast numbers needed to patrol the skies without it. If it weren’t for plastic, Great Britain might have lost the Battle of Britain.

Plastics save lives. Of course, metals, glass, and paper are all used in the healthcare industry, but nothing has had the impact that plastics have had in hospitals over the past 70 years. The list is nearly endless: gloves, masks, IV bags, tubes, syringes, catheters, pill bottles, pill packaging are all made better by the use of plastic. Plastic possesses the properties that are necessary for the biomedical industry. It is easy to sterilize. It’s lightweight, low-cost, and easy-to-produce, making it abundantly available when needed, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One example is incubators, which today are made almost entirely out of plastic. An incubator is a bed that helps provide warmth to an infant, and it is an essential tool for reducing infant mortality the world over, especially in third-world countries. It is estimated that about 42% of all neonatal deaths worldwide occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, with neonatal hypothermia as a strong contributing factor. In this context, does the availability of incubators made from plastic to drastically reduce their overall cost represent a moral case for plastics production?

The problem is that about 90% of the plastic used in the healthcare industry isn’t recycled, and either heads to landfills or undergoes incineration.

Automobiles without plastics. Automobile pollution is real, of course, because burning gasoline and diesel fuel creates harmful byproducts like nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, benzene, and formaldehyde. In addition, vehicles emit carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas. But plastics have played a vital role in reducing that pollution. Here’s how: Fifty percent of the average car is made of plastic, and that 50% accounts for about 10–15% of its overall mass. (Polypropylene makes up about 32% of that plastic, on average.) Reducing the mass of the car makes it lighter and therefore more fuel-efficient, thus reducing emissions.

What about automobile safety? Bumpers are critical to absorbing impact during accidents. Plastic bumpers weigh 50% less and at the same time absorb four to five times more energy during impact. Seat belts and airbags are made of plastic, and child restraint seats are made almost entirely of plastic.

Windshields made of laminated glass are shatter-resistant thanks to a thin layer of plastic sandwiched between two layers of glass, which is lighter and stronger than tempered glass. Since 1938, this addition alone has helped save lives by reducing ejection during accidents, which increases the likelihood of death by a factor of 10. In addition, modern laminations can filter out up to 99 percent of harmful UV rays. This also reduces in-car temperature and consequently the use of air conditioning, which further increases gas mileage, further reducing emissions.

These are just a few examples of how plastics benefit the planet. The fact is, plastics are somewhat vital to helping preserve the environment and human life, so why wouldn’t we want to propagate a technology that could enable plastics and the earth to coexist?

The circular recycling process

Another significant concern about plastics is the single-use applications for food service items and healthcare industry materials, which have the highest likelihood of polluting the environment. A management system is needed to ensure that single-use items are disposed of in such a way as to increase the likelihood that they head to a recycling center instead of a landfill. To assist in the solution, the industry needs to step up and create the demand for items with “multiple lives” and eliminate single-use in favor of multiple-use.

PureCycle Technologies is working on all fronts to keep polypropylene plastic out of landfills and in the circular recycling process for re-use where it belongs (Figure 3). Here are a few ways PureCycle is doing this:

  • We’re partnering with sports venues to adopt our PureZero™ program where single-use plastics are collected at the source
  • We’re implementing Pre-Processing (PreP) facilities where bulk plastics are sorted and pre-agglomerated as feedstocks to our commercial purification facilities
  • We’re partnering with civics groups to collect PP waste. For example, most political yard signs are made out of polypropylene so, after an election, these should head to the recycling center not the landfill. PureCycle is working to offer this option

    Figure 3. PureCycle Technologies is working on all fronts to keep polypropylene plastic out of landfills and in the circular recycling process for re-use where it belongs.
    Figure 3. PureCycle Technologies is working on all fronts to keep polypropylene plastic out of landfills and in the circular recycling process for re-use where it belongs.

Our short-term goal is to grow to a level where we can recycle 1 billion pounds of polypropylene each year by the year 2025. Our long-term goal is to grow our polypropylene recycling technology so that ultimately not much virgin PP has to be manufactured yearly. In other words, let’s make it once and recycle it over and over.

PureCycle has the technology designed to do this now, and with our “Born Digital mindset,” we can do it efficiently, and with a low carbon footprint. Despite what the naysayers say, true advanced plastics recycling has arrived.
All photos courtesy of PureCycle

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About The Authors

James Haw has been a career leader of the International Society of Automation having served at the local, regional, and national levels and is member of ChemPID. He is also a Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional (CMRP), as well as a Certified Project Management Professional (PMP). Professionally, James is vice president of Program Management & Digital Strategy for PureCycle Technologies, Inc, responsible for all worldwide project/program execution, as well as PCT’s Born Digital program. He has over 33 years of experience in the industrial manufacturing sector, holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering (BSEE) from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and is a registered Professional Engineer (PE) in the state of Texas.