Recycling is well established on Government and industry agendas, but to make the most of the opportunities offered we need to be making the most of our digital tools, urges AspenTech’s David Tremblay...
Plastics have changed the world, providing lightweight, durable alternatives to natural materials, often at much lower costs. Yet, while consumption of plastics has accelerated over the last three decades, innovation in how to recycle these materials has failed to keep pace.
Although consumption has grown threefold over the last two decades, only about 12% of plastic waste is recycled, with the rest making its way into landfills and oceans. Concerns about managing this are growing, along with regulations and compliance mandates.
In January 2018, China, which had handled nearly half the world’s recyclable waste for 25 years, banned the import of most plastics, leaving many governments scrambling to find new ways to manage plastic waste.
In response, many companies are incorporating sustainability targets into their business goals, including safety, asset integrity, emissions management and waste reduction.
Technology offers polymer manufacturing companies opportunities to gain higher returns and drive new levels of optimisation.
Leveraging digital tools to develop new products and processes, reduce waste and optimise operations helps companies improve the bottom line.
Building a circular economy
Today, there is a US$ 120 billion market opportunity for polymer recycling in North America alone. In the past, most recycled plastics were ‘downcycled’ to create less valuable products.
Instead profit-minded polymer manufacturers should be making use of process simulation tools that allow them to find new ways to reduce unwanted by-products and the environmental impact of downcycling. These tools enable the modelling of new recycling processes, measuring their viability.
Modelling batch processes can also help polymer producers to respond to customer demands faster and more profitably. This provides them with insight into how the polymer changes over time as the reactants are consumed, while optimising a batch for a customer’s specifications. In turn, this removes the trial and error that is commonplace in experimenting with batch recipes, accelerating speed to market, reducing waste and improving profitability.
Closing the loop
When it comes to reducing material waste, supply chain scheduling might not seem like the most obvious function to assess, yet there are two ways in which supply chain scheduling technology can help. This technology can leverage data to intelligently optimise the order in which different grades of material are produced.
In turn, this can lessen the volume of waste generated between different production campaigns by decreasing the number and duration of transitions.
Not only can this optimisation improve the agility of operations, it can also save polymer producers millions through the reduction in off-spec product being produced.
It’s anticipated that the demand for recycled plastics could be between 5-7.5 million metric tons and supply is stuck at 6% of the current demand. Using the right digital tools, recycled plastics can be cheaper than prime plastics. What’s more, pricing is less volatile compared to prime plastics and the dependency on non-renewable fossil fuels is eliminated.
There’s no disputing that the market is changing as the demand for recycled plastics increases and processes become ever more feasible. Polymer producers can adapt by leveraging the power of digital solutions without substantial investment.
Many can use the very same digital solutions that have streamlined product development, using them to further their competitive advantage by optimising operations and delivering on the market’s growing expectation for sustainability.
David Tremblay is senior director, product management at AspenTech