“We are at the dawn of a new industrial revolution. We’ve turned from extracting from the ground for energy to using those products again. We’ve been zipping the products. Now we need to unzip them and return them to the chemical stage."
April 9, 2018
by David Nesseth
Pyrowave wants to power a revolution. The Quebec upstart sees all the ethylene, propylene and styrene wasting away in Canada’s landfills and knows that it could be deconstructed as a new resource — essentially unzipped like a computer data file.
Eight years in, this small company has become a pioneer in the catalytic microwave depolymerization of plastics. It now has a full-scale modular microwave reactor in operation at its Valleyfield facility to recycle styrene monomer from post-consumer polystyrene waste. These days the company is looking to sell its OEM technology to other facilities that want to lead the way towards not only profit but a true circular economy.
“We are at the dawn of a new industrial revolution,” explains Pyrowave CEO Jocelyn Doucet. “We’ve turned from extracting from the ground for energy to using those products again. We’ve been zipping the products. Now we need to unzip them and return them to the chemical stage.”
Pyrowave’s achievement has been to scale up microwave technology to an industrial level to depolymerize postconsumer polystyrene — mostly recognized as white food takeout containers — into a styrene oil with up to 95% yield. Put simply, the company is turning plastic waste back into feedstock to make new plastic again. Pyrowave sells the polystyrene back to the polystyrene market, where the price has remained stable for some time.
PULL FACT: A polystyrene foam 500 ml cup for hot beverages uses a 1/3 less energy, produces 1/3 less greenhouse gases and 50% less solid waste by volume compared to a paperboard 500 ml cup with a sleeve.
As California’s state Legislature currently wrestles with a polystyrene ban, Pyrowave is trying to turn the tide on what they say is not only a misunderstood product, but an underutilized and unfairly maligned one that instead has the potential to be a key part of an extended producer responsibility market and effectively close the loop on polymers life cycle.
Polystyrene is one of the world’s fastest growing solid wastes, yet only has a recovery rate of about 5%. According to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, just 35% of Canadian communities accept polystyrene food containers through recycling programs, and some others offer drop-off locations for clean polystyrene.
“Polystyrene is a great product with great extruding properties,” says Doucet, as he drinks espresso proudly from a styrofoam cup. “It has great thermal properties, too, but perception is not good because it doesn’t decompose. We can solve that problem.”
Polystyrene is lightweight, low cost, strong, insulating, sanitary and, to the surprise of some, recyclable. But in its foam form, most seen in food packaging, it’s also bulky, and can be contaminative if landfilled. Doucet says the company, which has garnered a slew of cleantech awards as of late, has several agreements with major food retailers that currently have to decide between landfilling their foam food crates or improve the company’s sustainability optics by sending its foam to Pyrowave to be recycled using what it calls “selective chemistry”.
Pyrowave currently processes about 200 tonnes per year with a small supply. Its process is able to reduce a product that would produce 2.5 tonnes of greenhouse gases per ton to just 0.5 tons by replacing virgin chemicals. Additionally, the microwave process does not produce undesirable byproducts of ethylbenzene or toluene, which reduce the value of the output. Pyrowave is able to detach the styrene molecules.
Foam, which many people equate with polystyrene, is just one product using polystyrene. About 70% of polystyrene is used in packaging, with about the remaining 30% used in electronics.
Right now, producers are paying for polystyrene but not getting anything back from it, like they may from paper or plastics. Some municipalities, such as Toronto, have experimented with curbside collection for polystyrene, while other markets, like New York City, have banned polystyrene.
A series of government grants and awards have bolstered Pyrowave, but investors have been tough to find. When cleantech industry expectations skyrocketed in the late 1990s, the lack of progress disenfranchised many investors, who remained reluctant until recently. Doucet sees the change as a generational shift in tone about cleantech and waste-to-energy projects.
Doucet is optimistic about a new consortium project that represents various actors from the value chain of the polystyrene industry. He’s excited that the company’s first machine outside of its own facility is expected to be hosted in the Ontario border city of Sarnia later in 2018
“There’s good synergy with Sarnia. Lots of action there,” said Doucet.
Pyrowave’s team is rounded out by Jean-Philippe Laviolette, co-founder and director of engineering; Philippe Leclerc, R&D specialist; Oliver Leblanc, operations manager; and Jamal Chaouki, co-founder and director.
First prize at IQ-CHem competition in Russia.
2017 Global Cleantech 100 Ones to Watch list, produced by Cleantech Group (CTG).