The concept of converting plastics to products isn’t necessarily new. The conversion of plastic waste into petroleum feedstock is technically viable but also costly. Contributing to the high costs is the fact that there are over seven types of waste plastics that require different processing conditions and that the process is endothermic (energy-consuming).
There are companies all over the world at various stages of commercial development. For example, Environ, a Washington, D.C. start-up, has large-scale facility that turns 10,000 tonnes of plastic at a time into oil. Also, Blest Corporation, based in Japan, recently began selling plastics-to-oil conversion systems for small-scale use at $10,000 per unit.
One of the more recent players entering the plastics recycling market is GreenMantra Recycling Technologies, which incorporated in January 2010. Based in Toronto, the company was founded by Pushkar Kumar, a metallurgical and materials engineers who also has an MBA.
Catalytic pyrolysis is the typical technology used to convert plastics to oil. A catalyst is a substance that initiates or accelerates a chemical reaction without itself being affected. Pyrolysis is the chemical decomposition of a substance by heating that occurs spontaneously at high enough temperatures. It takes place in the absence of oxygen (so no combustion occurs).
The use of a catalyst significantly lowers the temperature required for pyrolysis. This is important since pyrolysis is an endothermic process, meaning energy needs to be put into the process. Catalysts typically used in the industry are zeolites – microporous, aluminosilicate minerals that have a porous structure.
Like other plastic-to-oil companies, GreenMantra’s technology is propriety. This is often the case since plastics-to-oil companies closely guard information on the type of catalyst used, its optimum concentration, and operating temperatures.
Although GreenMantra is a new company, Kumar has been working on the plastics conversion technology for seven years. His father, a chemical engineer, and Kumar worked together on the technology in India.
The company claims that, unlike it competitors, it can achieve 100 per cent conversion of plastics to wax. Also, the company’s focus is on producing wax instead of fuel. In North America, the wax industry is estimated to generate $2.2 billion in revenue annually. Wax is used in hundreds of products ranging from candles, polishers, car polish, cosmetics and paints.
For the past year and a half, GreenMantra has operated a plant in India with successful product sales and has proven the technical and financial feasibility in the Asian market.
Greenmantra has yet to construct a facility in Canada. The first one is planned for the Toronto area and will be built by the end of 2011. It will be constructed to process 240 tonnes of plastic waste per year.
At first the company will only process post-industrial HDPE (i.e., milk and juice jugs, detergent bottles, yoghurt and margarine tubs, and grocery bags) and LDPE (i.e., bread bags, frozen food bags, and squeezable ketchup bottles) plastics. This will ensure a relatively clean incoming stream for the company to prove its technology works.
Following the successful demonstration of the technology, the company will scale-up to a full-sized facility that will eventually be capable of handling all types of plastics wastes, including blue box waste from municipal curbside pick-up programs.
There is a long list of Canadian companies that have come and gone trying to make money recycling on waste stream or the other. Their downfall is often the result of poorly forecasting the price they can charge for their product.
In the Case of GreenMantra, the wax it will produce is currently a commodity in short supply. Wax is typically produced by oil refineries but with the crude oil currently priced at $100 per barrel refineries are more focused on producing fuel. This has resulted in a lower supply of wax and a rise in price.
Kumar claims that his company’s process to convert plastic into wax has to potential to be as much as to 50 per cent cheaper than conventional wax manufacturing.
GreenMantra recently cleared one major hurdle to becoming a viable commercial enterprise: It managed to secure financing from angel investors to fund its Toronto-area demonstration facility.
It may not be too long before Kumar’s technology is utilized in other parts of the world. GreenMantra has granted a royalty-based license to a developer to establish operations in Europe. It remains to be seen if Kumar can make his company a major player in the North American wax market while helping solve the continent’s plastic recycling problems.
For a perspective on why local added-value processing of recycled plastic is important, please read my business partner James Sbrolla’s “Blog” article on page 38.
John Nicholson, M.Sc., P.Eng., is a consultant based in Toronto, Ontario. Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org