In the relentless global battle against the effects of the aggression towards the environment, diversity of perspectives is a constant source of controversy, but also of entrepreneurship and innovative technologies. This is the case of Enval Ltd., a company based at Huntingdon, United Kingdom. The absence of collaborative actions from different players within the production and consumption chains seems to stand in the way of achieving significant advancements in the mitigation or even revert their negative effects on our environment.
However, urgency is manifest; and where most advancements towards the development of high-impact strategies in defense of the environment arise is in the efforts pushing the creation of innovative technologies to efficiently reuse materials and reincorporate them to the production chains.
With a critical yet realistic sense, Carlos Ludlow Palafox —who has developed a singular patented solution with microwave-induced pyrolysis for flexible plastic packaging, even laminates including aluminum, which recuperates materials from packaging waste into ready-to-use oils— drew, in a conversation with Mundo PMMI a clear picture of the possibilities currently opening worldwide through pyrolysis technologies. He has created and developed such technique from his company, Enval Ltd., which he built on the foundations of his studies at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.
Easing the way
The concern for the environment is still far from being vastly adopted by society, so changing the habits of citizens feels like a humongous task for which we do not have much time. This is where the importance lies for points of view like the one Carlos Ludlow Palafox expressed when he stated that “in some way we need to make all human activities less impactful on the environment, without it depending on the attitudes, actions, or customs of individuals”. To further explain his vision, the director of Enval Ltd. emphasizes the importance of developing alternative solutions. “If, at the same time, we allow for more education, let people worry more, it is all gains. But we are not going to modify the uses and customs of seven million people in the world overnight, so we need to do something about these plastic packaging”, points out the chemical engineer from the Ibero-American University in Mexico with a doctorate in Chemical Engineering from Cambridge University.
Besides the innovations that brands are permanently developing to improve the functionality and sustainability of their packaging, developing new technologies is allowing new possibilities for plastics that until not long ago could not find a path towards recycling can now be taken advantage of as raw materials that get reinserted into production chains. “In most cases, used flexible plastic packaging is not exploitable with the recycling technologies available, but they are excellent from an environmental point of view. Why do we strive, then, to change them without doing anything to advance the technology to recycle them?”, asks Carlos Ludlow Palafox right before he tells us about the road to his technological development. “If we have flexible plastic packaging that cost us years and so much money to develop, and that besides are so effective in the protection of foods, it does not make much sense to insist in the search for their replacements and to modify so abruptly our chains, when, on the other hand, we have the capabilities to reuse them through novel chemical recycling technologies”, he adds.
By the time Ludlow Palafox began working in the world of packaging, he focused on developing a pyrolytic process for the recycling of plastics, an endeavor that by then proved to be insufficiently attractive economically. “Plastics from crude oil, which already has an enormous installed infrastructure —Carlos explains—, so competing in that field might turn out to be extremely complicated when you get to thinking about waste, separation, reprocessing, and so on. Compare that with a gigantic infrastructure to extract the oil from the ground, take to refineries and pass it through polymerization plants to obtain new and cheap plastics”.
An answer to this difficulty lied in the employment of the pyrolysis process to recycle the aluminum present in so many complex materials used in packaging: “At our company Enval Ltd. we developed pyrolysis at a moment when it was financially inefficient, because we had nothing to do with oils derived from plastics. That is why we started with aluminum, but now things have changed and oils that we generate from plastics have gained a high value”.
Pyrolysis consists in heating plastic in an oxygen-free environment, where its molecules break into smaller fractions. “Just like those compounds used to create the plastic came from crude oil, if plastics get broken down at a molecular level again, we obtain an oil that is chemically similar, that ends up being very alike to what is found in crude oil. In other words, we are de-polymerizing a polymer, the plastic”, explains Carlos Ludlow Palafox. These oils can be reincorporated into the manufacture of new plastics, although “of course, not all plastics are good candidates because when you separate their components you obtain unwanted substances, but in combination with mechanical recycling processes, pyrolysis becomes a catalyst of the circular economy”.
Mechanical versus chemical
With the application of microwave-induced pyrolysis, as they call this technology originally developed in Cambridge University and then by Enval Ltd., a wide field is opening for action towards processing materials that at this time are not recyclable, especially those derived from flexible plastic packaging.
A considerable inconvenience of materials recycled through mechanical processes, the only ones available at a large scale, is that they cannot always be reused in the production of food-grade plastics. “Only PET bottles and high-density polyethylene can be reused in food packaging applications. Then, if around 75% of packaging is destined for food, we are facing a mathematical problem: how can we reach the manufacture of 75% of new packaging from recycled materials if now we are using all we recover only for the remaining 25% of packaging?”, Carlos Ludlow Palafox asks himself.
Besides, he explains that the food industry has been using multi-layered materials because it recognizes its barrier advantages in terms of protection and conservation, even though they are truly light. Therefore, he questions that “we make such huge efforts to find new solutions based on monomaterials, instead of developing new alternatives to recycled what already exists”.
These questions lay on the table the issue of the discrepancy between two different coexistent types of legislations: those that norm food-contact applications and the others that seek to increase recycled content of newly manufactured packaging. According to Ludlow Palafox, the path to closing this gap can be found in the chemical recycling pyrolysis offers, that can process all kinds of highly unrecyclable plastics to produce oils that petrochemical industries can utilize once again to manufacture plastic. “That way we achieve two purposes: virgin plastic is produced from the oils extracted through pyrolysis, which is apt for food packaging, while we comply with recycled material content norms”, explains Ludlow Palafox. He also confirms that “food contact regulations for recycled materials are not going to change overnight; we only need to watch what has happened in the last ten years”.
Photo by Nareeta Martin, at Unsplash
A tailor-made technology
Within the recycling industry, it has been traditional to think and do things at the biggest scale; landfills are always huge, but their profit margins are in comparison exceedingly small, so the bigger they are the more they can reduce overhead costs and increase their gains. However, one of the greatest obstacles faced by the industry of mass-scale flexible packaging recycling is the material’s low weight. For example, a bale of flexible packaging that reaches a separation plant can weigh 400 to 500 kg, while the same volume made up of aluminum cans can amount to 2.5 tons. With such low weight for large volumes, transporting the material is way more expensive in the case of flexible plastics; a sizable portion of the financial profit of reprocessing gets lost and “literally is burned in the form of gasoline in trucks and as salaries of their drivers”. With these explanations, the director of Enval Ltd. illustrates the departure from the traditional model that his company has adopted regarding chemical recycling.
By the hand of his company, Carlos Ludlow Palafox decided to approach this challenge by developing an application to install this technology at the back of separation plants so when packaging gets separated, they do not need to travel once more. When the pyrolytic process is done, the resulting oil is taken to a petrochemical plant in a truck that can load twenty-seven tons of liquid, instead of those eight to ten tons of bales of plastic as maximum load volume capacity.
An achievable balance
Despite its efficiency, the chemical recycling model faces the challenge of meeting the massive amounts of oil required by clients in their processes. “The smallest polymerization plants out there are for approximately 400,000 tons”, Carlos Ludlow Palafox comments so we get an idea of the difference between supply and demand and understand their strategy to approach this inconvenience. “We are trying to explain to the big plastic companies —ten of the most important who are now studying the purchase of our oil— why we use this model of gathering production from many smaller plants to deliver it to them”.
These giants of the petrochemical industry find it difficult to understand the convenience of a scaled oil supply in pipes, versus the option of receiving thousands of liters of crude per hour to produce new plastic. “But they will have to learn that it is the only way to tackle the waste problem and that they will need to perform the chemical recycling using these processes”, says Ludlow Palafox. The trend in large CPGs multinationals is towards the adoption of materials different from plastic could motivate the petrochemicals to redirect their production.
For the director of Enval Ltd., a future landscape in which the big companies comprehend the value and the possibilities that microwave-induced pyrolysis recycling technologies offer is highly possible. “I want to believe, I am still sufficiently idealist or stubborn enough to say that we are going to make it —he states with conviction—, I think that little by little, if there are more companies like us that develop technologies around pyrolysis of plastics and, at the same time, one or two of the big plastic manufacturers begin to really do it using pyrolytic oils, everyone else will need to join in”.
The road towards that scenario goes through distinct stages and looks like a chain of pressures between different interest groups within the industry. “It is one of those situations where you need someone to do something to make everyone else follow, because they just cannot stay behind, because it needs to be done, because the pressure is there”, explains Ludlow Palafox. In this dynamic of emulation and response to sustainability demands, the role of governments with their regulations, more attention from consumers and initiative-taking measures taken by CPGs will drive fabricators to adopt every day more alternative recycled raw materials, just as the oil obtained from the pyrolytic process. “CPGs will have to do something; then, petrochemicals will have to do something, and we will have to supply this technology for them to do it”, predicts Carlos Ludlow Palafox.
And to react to that chain of actions, Enval Ltd. —headed by Ludlow Palafox— currently owns a recycling plant in Alconbury, near Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, and will open a new one near Liverpool; on the other hand, this last September it was announced the opening of the first plant in Mexico by Enval Ltd. together with the multinational Nestlé and Greenback Recycling Techologies for the processing of truly circular plastic packaging, as well as ongoing projects with other top brands, such as Kraft Heinz and Sonoco, among others, to build additional plants in the Unites States and Europe. His philosophy to give his company a “small- scale” reflects today on having gained valuable competitive advantages: “The difference between ourselves and other pyrolytic companies is that we started out doing small processes, so we can make them much faster; we can create more plants in a year, while companies that work on a large-scale can take up to three years to construct a single plant”.