A new recycling plant is designed to process hard-to-recycle plastic using what’s called supercritical steam—water heated to a high temperature and pressure—as molecular scissors, breaking down chemical bonds in plastic to create building blocks that can be used to make new plastic. The process works on any type of plastic, including packaging with multiple layers that normally isn’t accepted in recycling bins. “A new solution is needed to recycle those materials that mechanical recycling cannot,” says Steve Mahon, CEO at Mura Technology, the company that developed the technology and is building the new plant. “It is also important to recognize the value of waste plastic as a ready resource for the manufacture of plastic, decouple production from fossil resource and entering plastic into a circular economy, avoiding wasting this useful and flexible material.”
The new factory is under construction in a part of Northern England where some of the first large-scale plastic manufacturing began in the 1930s. While the traditional process relied on fossil fuels such as crude oil or natural gas to make plastic, the company envisions making manufacturing circular: After someone uses plastic, it’s recycled back into the materials to make brand-new plastic, and after that plastic is used, it can be recycled again, in an endless loop. Like other forms of so-called advanced or chemical recycling, it can be used to produce materials that are identical to virgin plastic. That’s different from traditional recycling, which shreds and melts old plastic and “downcycles” it to a lower quality, so recycling can happen only a limited number of times.