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The Catch-22 of Chemical Recycling

With a promising, innovative technology and a new factory, Blue Cycle is making great strides in the field of circularity and chemical recycling. They produce oil from plastic waste streams, which can be used as raw material for new plastics. However, the company still faces a few significant hurdles on the road to success, especially in the Netherlands. "We're running into regulations and red tape head-on at the moment, and it feels frustrating. While at the same time, there’s also plenty of interest abroad."

New facility

Earlier this year, Blue Cycle opened its first factory in Heerenveen. This facility is equipped to process plastic waste into oil, which can be used directly as raw material for the production of new plastics, or through an additional pre-processing step. The technology used for this process is called pyrolysis, which involves heating materials at elevated temperatures in the absence of oxygen.

Blue Cycle has developed a new pyrolysis technique to handle plastic waste streams that were previously considered non-recyclable. “And we use the non-condensable gases from the pyrolysis process as fuel. We only need to start the installation with natural gas. Once the pyrolysis gas is produced, the gas burners can be turned off,” says Eric Langedijk, director and co-founder. “So, the process is entirely self-sufficient as well.”

Chemical and Mechanical Recycling

“Plastic is essentially a byproduct of fuel production from petroleum,” explains Langedijk. “So, by converting those plastics back into oil, we replace the fossil resources used to produce fuel and plastic. In that sense, the oil we produce is a raw material and therefore circular. This method is called chemical recycling. In contrast, there’s mechanical recycling, which involves cleaning the plastic waste and pressing it into bars or sheets for use as construction materials to replace wood, concrete, or steel.

Blue Cycle’s way of working is called chemical recycling. Opposite to that is mechanical recycling, which is in simple terms sorting and washing plastic by type, and turning plastic back into plastic. Mechanical recycling is cheaper, but has limitations. For example, it can’t be recycled indefinitely, but chemical recycling can. Many plastics that are mechanically recycled still end up in a linear process, whereas chemical recycling is fully circular. However, mechanical recycling is ranked higher than chemical recycling.

Some problems arise

And that’s where Langedijk points out the core of the first problem. “Plastic producers are responsible for recycling their products. Agreements have been made with the government, and the executing organization is Nedvang. They own and are responsible for the processing. They’ve been given a target by the government to achieve a 50% recycling rate.”

“Because chemical recycling is classified lower, we don’t receive those waste streams, because they can reach that percentage more easily and quickly through mechanical recycling. Pressing a low-value product counts as 100% recycling, without considering the CO2 impact or reducing the use of fossil resources. Moreover, a significant portion of mechanical recycling is done abroad, where they make things like roadside posts and street furniture.”

And so, an absurd situation arises for Blue Cycle. “Our factory in Heerenveen is right next to waste processor Omrin. But they can’t provide us with plastic waste because they’re not the owners. We have to get it from Germany and England, where they say, ‘Sure, we have plenty of Dutch plastic waste lying around that you can use…'” says Langedijk. “There is a government plan on chemical recycling, filled with ambitions and objectives, but without any regulations, implementation plans, or anyone taking responsibility. And there’s no politician or official who wants to get involved in that.”

The Mystery of the End-of-Waste Status

This is the first major hurdle for Blue Cycle, but there are other problems at play too. “The oil we make comes from waste streams, so technically our oil is considered waste. That means refineries can’t buy our oil unless we get an end-of-waste status. But till this day, I can’t find anyone in the government who can grant us that status. It’s like being passed around from one office to another. Another company managed to get it through a legal ruling. So we thought, great! They’re doing something similar, so that ruling should apply to us too.”

“But you guessed it, that’s not the case,” Langedijk continues. “We had to apply for it ourselves. The problem is that nothing is being processed right now due to lack of time. As a result, we have seven containers of oil sitting on our premises, and we can’t do anything with them.”

New factories

Despite all the obstacles, there’s still plenty of hope on the horizon for Blue Cycle. “We’ve applied for a JFT subsidy for building a new factory in Delfzijl. We hope to get a decision on that this month, and then we can start applying for all the permits,” says Langedijk. “We’re also working on setting up a factory in Slovakia. The permits are already in place, as well as a factory building. There’s also a lot of interest from Germany, although those plans are a bit less tangible.”

This confirmation feels good for Blue Cycle, at least. “We recently had an Italian delegation visit, and they were also super enthusiastic. Thankfully, they’re eager for it abroad. The world keeps moving forward, and when we talk to oil producers, they all want our product. That gives us hope and motivation to further develop Blue Cycle and contribute to solving our global environmental problem.”

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