Industrializing the recycling of polymers is an objective that is now crucial in preserving resources, which will require determined mobilization of the entire value chain, from organizing the collection of materials, to finalizing industrial processes and creating economic models. Arkema is fully invested in this work through its two major programs: MMAtwo, for the collection and depolymerization of PMMA1 (acrylic glass), and Virtucycle®, which is dedicated to the recycling of polyamides and PVDF fluoropolymers.
Fully 300,000 tons of PMMA (or acrylic glass) are produced in Europe every year, but just 10% of this is currently collected and recycled, either mechanically through the grinding of industrial scraps, or by depoly-merization. There is plenty of room for improvement. “PMMA can be regenerated as its original monomer and reintroduced into the manufacturing process to make new resins, with its properties unchanged, whereas recycling it mechanically tends to degrade its properties,” explains Jean-Luc Dubois, Catalysis, Processes, Renewables and Recycling Scientific Director at Arkema. In order to exploit this property, the Group has signed up to the EU program MMAtwo, launched at the end of 2018 for four years, and provided with a budget of €8.9 million. The consortium has 13 partners from the entire PMMA value chain, working towards concrete ambitions: “We think we can increase recycling by collecting more production scraps from factories and collecting PMMA objects at their end of life,” continues Jean-Luc Dubois, who chairs MMAtwo’s Executive Board.
PMMA depolymerization, which consists of returning to the monomer, MAM, is a process that chemists are familiar with, and Arkema itself has used it in the past. Its energy equation is good, since a large part of the energy required to produce a sheet of PMMA is used to produce the initial monomer. Turning the polymer back into its monomer uses 70% less energy and creates 70% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, than producing the monomer. For the consortium, the goal is to validate the industrial viability of the process and demonstrate its competitiveness in the European market. Ultimately the project is intended to lead to construction of a recycling plant in the Netherlands, to be operated by the project’s partner company Heathland. With this in mind, MMAtwo’s other major activity is setting up a network to collect PMMA, including scraps from producers, and in the form of end-of-life objects, which are the major potential source. “We are working with the environmental body Ecologic, which specializes in collecting WEEE2 and is also a member of MMAtwo, to organize collection flows for the most useful objects – large pieces such as neon signs, computer screens, and automotive tail lights,” says Jean-Luc Dubois. The PMMA contained in end-of-life products may, however, contain chemical additives of unknown natures and in unknown quantities. Therefore, an important part of MMAtwo’s role is to ensure these additives are eliminated during depolymerization and to establish their impact on the quality of monomer produced.
1. Polymethyl methacrylate
2. Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment