The Extraordinary Remaking of Ordinary Things, Part 4: Dow, Mura, Berkeley Lab make plastic more recyclable

September 15, 2022 |

In the EU, Dow and Mura Technology followed up on their summer multi-facility partnership to transform plastic recyclability with the specific announce of project one. Mura plans to construct a new facility at Dow’s Böhlen site in Germany. This project is targeted for a final investment decision by the end of 2023.  

Mura’s new Böhlen facility in Germany, which is expected to be operational by 2025, would deliver approximately 120 kilotons per annum (KTA) of advanced recycling capacity at full run-rate. This and the other planned units expected to be constructed across Europe and the U.S. would collectively add as much as 600KTA of advanced recycling capacity by 2030 – and position Dow to become the largest consumer of circular feedstock for polyethylene production globally.

The problem

OK, we’re supposed to Reduce, Recycle, Re-Use, right? The 3 R’s that are supposed to de-intensify problems like the persistence of plastic and the threat of microplastics infiltrating our foods, water, animals, and so forth.

Here’s the real deal. The overall Recycling numbers suck, think maybe low single-digits in key markets. with the rise of affluence in the developing world, the Reduce opportunities look very poor today, and tomorrow doesn’t look good either. Which brings us to Re-Use. That’s supposed to mean taking multiple drinks out of the one cup, that sort of thing — but in another way of looking at it, it’s re-using the original feedstock to make new product.  Problem there, traditional plastics are unsustainable and harmful to the environment, and mechanical recycling may allow short reuse but eventually makes polymers unusable.  You have to re-virginize. 

Long Term Solutions: The Berkeley innovation story

Over at Berkeley Lab there’s been astounding progress in R&D. Researchers have developed a method to produce polydiketoenamine (PDK) polymers with traditional plastic characteristics that can be recycled indefinitely, using heteroatom (non-carbon, non-hydrogen atom) placement. The novel bio-based polymers may be chemically recycled to monomers at end of life and significantly widen the scope of polymer compositions.

Further, there’s an advance of note in Microbial Production of Monomers for Recycling of Plastic Polymers. This is a new class of highly recyclable plastic polymer, known as vitrimers, combines the processing and recycling ease of thermoplastics with the performance advantages of thermosets. These vitrimers can be chemically de-polymerized, typically into small molecules or short oligomers, including β-keto-δ-lactones (BKDLs), a valuable monomer of vitrimer, and diacids.

On the recycling front, there’s news to share as well. Recycling PET, the material in clear plastic bottles,  is complicated by the increasing presence of PLA in waste streams, which contaminate PET during reprocessing. Researchers have developed a novel process by which PLA is selectively removed from a PLA/PET mixture using alcoholysis. Not only does the process remove impurities from PET, but the resulting lactate esters are valuable as both bio-derived solvents and monomers for the production of virgin PLA.

That is then, what about now? The Mura technology story

The world’s first plant using Mura’s HydroPRS process, located in Teesside, U.K., is expected to be operational in 2023 with a 20 KT per year production line set to supply Dow with a 100% recycled feedstock. The extended partnership is set to considerably increase this supply, playing a significant role in Dow and Mura’s planned global rollout of as much as 600 KT of advanced recycling capacity by 2030.

Dow’s extensive global reach will enable the scale-up of Mura’s technology through multiple projects in the U.S. and Europe. These plans include potential co-location opportunities, which will provide significant integration benefits for Mura’s plants.

Mura’s unique hydrothermal recycling process, HydroPRS, breaks down plastics using water in the form of supercritical steam (water at elevated pressure and temperature). The steam acts like molecular scissors, cutting longer-chain hydrocarbon bonds in plastics to produce the valuable chemicals and oils from which the plastic was originally made – in as little as 25 minutes.

These oils – equivalent to the original fossil products – are then used to produce new, virgin-grade plastic with no limit to the number of times the same material can be processed, creating a true circular economy for plastic waste. Importantly, the products may be suitable for use in food-contact packaging, unlike conventional recycling processes.

Mura’s process can recycle all forms of plastic waste including those considered ‘unrecyclable’, such as films, pots, tubs and trays, that can currently only be incinerated or sent to landfill. The process is designed to work alongside conventional recycling and wider initiatives to reduce and reuse plastic such as mechanical recycling (where plastic waste is shredded and re-formed into different plastic products) which remains crucial to Dow’s recycling strategy.

Using supercritical steam means the technology is also inherently scalable. Unlike other methods, which heat waste from the outside, the steam imparts energy from the inside, providing an efficient conversion of plastic waste; a process which can be maintained regardless of scale.

The Wonder from Down Under

There’s quite a bit of backstory to Mura Technology. It’s the fork off the original Licella tech that was con-invented by Licella CEO Len Humphreys and University of Sydney professor Thomas Maschmeyer. Armstrong and Licella established Mura as a UK-based JV to explore the opportunities for supercritical and plastics. Some background here., and we’ve covered the underlying Licella tech going all the way back to a site visit in 2010, here, and here’s a pretty good slide deck here. We’ve admired this technology since it was in the cradle, amazing to see the progress.

The Dow, Mura backstory

Dow joins other players in the Mura ecosystem such as KBR, Wood, Licella — and Ocean Generation, which is campaigning to tackle the plastic waste issue.

Dow will play an important role in the partnership as a key off-taker of the circular feed that Mura produces. This circular feed, derived from plastic waste currently destined for landfill or incineration, reduces reliance on fossil-based feedstocks and will enable Dow to produce a recycled plastic feedstock for the development of new, virgin-grade plastics which are in high demand from global brands. By working together, Dow and Mura will ensure plastic has a viable way to be re-circulated into global supply chains, helping to advance a circular economy for plastics and increase the value of plastic waste. 

These planned capital investments by Mura, as well as Dow’s off-take agreements, represent both companies’ largest commitment to date to advance and scale global advanced recycling capabilities.

The Bottom Line

As noted above, we need immediate and scaled solutions now and a portfolio of options for the future. We’re not optimistic here in Digestville about changing human nature much, and Reduce is plagued by that problem. So, Recycle and Re-Use, together, that provides better optionality, in our view. Needs tech — Mura’s got it, Dow’s validating with real investment dollar. For the long-term groups like the R&D teams at Berkeley are bringing solutions forward. Seem to us to be far batter than juvenile gestures like making people drink from paper straws, which accomplish almost nothing environmentally and make a joke of environmentalism.

Reaction from the stakeholders

“The continuation and growth of Dow and Mura’s collaboration is another example of how Dow is working strategically to expand and build momentum around securing circular feedstocks and supporting breakthrough advanced recycling technologies,” said Isam Shomaly, Dow business vice president for Feedstocks and Commodities.

“We continue to increase Dow’s capacity to use recycled content as feedstock, and continue to invest in the most effective technology available to enable our circular business model for plastics,” said Diego Donoso, president of Dow Packaging & Specialty Plastics. “The diversification of our feedstock slate and decarbonization of our assets will enable the achievement of Dow’s goal of a sustainable, low-carbon future, and meet strong and growing customer demand for circular polymers. This will be a significant step forward to decrease our dependency on virgin fossil-based feedstocks.”

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