Innovations from the North include new ways to clean the oceans of plastic waste, creating plastic from non-oil sources, and increasing the amount of plastic that can be recycled
By Thomas Ansell
The Northern Netherlands’ status as a centre for expertise in plastics and chemicals is well-known, and has led to a whole raft of new ideas for ‘greening’ the plastic making process having come from Groningen, Friesland, and Drenthe. Recently, Top Dutch, the organisation that tries to bring more foreign investment to the North, presented the ways in which the North is contributing to making the greenest plastics possible, and we’ve highlighted our top 3.
Cleaning the oceans
One innovative idea that has gained huge traction is Ocean Clean-Up: an idea first throught of by 24-year old Boyan Slat. He invented a huge 600-meter long floating tube that sieves through ocean plastic, making it easier to be removed. His idea has attracted so much investment that in October of last year a full-size version was made and launched in San Francisco, on a five-year mission to reduce the amount of plastic in our oceans.
Improving the amount that can be recycled
At Chemport Europe, which includes the Chemical Cluster Emmen, huge efforts have been put into making it easier to recycle plastics. Whilst government-led efforts have meant that the Netherlands recycles around 90% of its PET plastic, developments from the Chemical Cluster now mean there are more ways than ever to actually recycle the plastic that is collected.
Chemical recycling has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, and its importance is that it means almost everything submitted for recycling can actually be recycled. Currently, the process is mechanical- bottles (for example) are ground down into pellets, which are melted, and so on. The process cannot take very dirty input-plastics, nor is it really suitable for recycling polyester clothing and highly-coloured plastics. With chemical recycling, impure input-plastic is no longer a problem, according to Jan Jager of NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences.
Changing the way products are made in the first place
Currently, lots of plastics are not actually recyclable. This includes significant amounts of rubber, and also ‘hard plastics’, which have been designed to last for a long time (for instance in garden furniture). Francesco Picchioni, Professor of Chemical Technology at the University of Groningen says that by altering the way that polymer chains are connected- known as vulcanisation and currently using sulphur compounds- they can be broken down at a temperature that doesn’t destroy the polymer chains themselves, so the chains can be used again. This means that, potentially, the 1 billion car tyres discarded each year can be recycled.
Plastics that are currently made using oil are also being tinkered with, with new base materials including sugar beet, lactic acid, and sugar cane.