INSIGHT: Final 12 months of European PMMA recycling project to tackle the additives challenge

Mathew Jolin-Beech

01-Oct-2021

LONDON (ICIS)–Europe’s methyl methacrylate recycling consortium, MMAtwo, is attempting to tackle to challenge of additives in the final 12 months of the project.

The consortium of MMA producers and consumers is seeking to build on progress made in a pilot project, started in October 2018, which has included establishing a feedstock supply chain, testing recycling technologies, and creating a useful and desirable recycled methyl methacrylate (rMMA) product.

After establishing a supply of waste material as its essential feedstock, Jean-Luc Dubois, chair of MMAtwo’s executive committee and Arkema’s scientific director, said the main focus for the final year of the project is to work through the additives challenge.

This involved establishing what the additives are, their impact on the end product, how to extract them from the feedstock, and how to dispose of them once they’ve been removed.

Additives may impart useful or desirable properties to the original product but are impurities in the recycled material.

This is the final piece of the puzzle in establishing the rMMA process and potentially unlocking a €1bn global market and helping improve the sustainability of the industry.

The four-year project has mobilised a budget of €8.9m, including €6.6m of funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. It aims to find ways to turn polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) waste back into its raw material methyl methacrylate.

MMAtwo partners:

  • Heathland
  • Arkema,
  • JSW Europe
  • Comet Traitements
  • Certech
  • Ecologic
  • Quantis
  • Ugent
  • Speichim
  • Delta Glass
  • Process Design Center
  • Ayming
  • Plados Telma
  • Suster
  • The University of Gent in Belgium

MMAtwo aims to secure the supply of commercial plant recycling units with at least 27,000 tonnes of feedstocks: PMMA scraps and end-of-life products, which will then be turned back into a usable monomer (MMA).

By depolymerising PMMA waste, the consortium hopes to achieve a 30% cut in the use of primary fossil fuels in the process of creating MMA, and to cut carbon emissions by at least 20% at the same time.

Currently, only 10% of European PMMA production is recycled. The existing recycling processes tend to focus on post-industrial scraps.

This has been the primary focus for the project, although it is now moving on to look at processing end of life products including highway graffiti barriers, lights, and LCD screens.

However, this has created a new problem: how to identify, separate, and dispose of PMMA additives in an effective manner and still have an attractive rMMA product at the end of it all.

This is the focus for the final 12 months of the pilot project. It begins with expanding and identifying the new waste PMMA feedstocks.

Previously, production waste had been used to test the recycling principle and establish the manufacturing processes.

However, Dubois added that the project needs to go beyond production waste to end of life waste; things like restaurant signs, lights, and graffiti/highway barriers.

The first challenge for these products is that they are difficult to collect, but strategic partnerships are being developed to collect them.

“We wanted 27,000 tonnes of PMMA waste and we’ve got 30,000 – collected by Ecologic,” Dubois said.

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80% – the recovery rate from waste PMMA feedstock

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However, only 6,000 tonnes of this is currently end of life waste, the majority of which is LCD screens. Of the other waste, such as the lights and signs, some of these are more than 30 years old, and will be contaminated, as well as containing non PMMA impurities.

These include additives such as plasticizers, pigments and stabilisers. Some of these are critical for mechanical recycling but are not in depolymerisation processes and are impurities.

Dubois told ICIS: “This is increasing the complexity of the project as we go on, and that’s why in the last year try to identify where the additives end up if we can.”

Once identified, they can then be disposed of properly, according to EU regulations.

Aside from the identification and disposal challenges, these additives can impact the end rMMA product.

Currently, all known imperfections in the rMMA are below 0.1%, with unknown imperfections below 0.01%. “This means we can achieve high quality MMA,” Dubois stated.

Despite this, the pilot has raised some concerns that still need to be addressed.

These include the odour, as ethyl acrylate, an additive in the production of virgin PMMA, has a distinctive smell, as well the colour.

A pilot by JSW Europe indicated that the quality of rMMA compared to virgin MMA is that it is slightly yellower when sourced from LCD screens, although composites produce a clearer product.

However, the high quality and clearer rMMA is gaining an audience of potential customers, while it is already being used by Delta Glass.

This final step is the ultimate goal for MMAtwo – creating and establishing a circular economy for MMA and PMMA, where end of life material can be effectively recycled into a high quality, desirable product.

Some challenges are being overcome, such as establishing a waste supply chain, and testing the technology to ensure it is effective and cost efficient.

The final, major one that is critical to achievement of the circular economy goal, is that of the additives, and ensuring they do not impact the quality of the end product, and are disposed of safely..

By Mathew Jolin-Beech

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