Polystyrene is the fourth most common thermoplastic by total volume produced, and, like many plastics, its use increases every year. By 2019, the global polystyrene market is expected to be worth $28.2 billion USD. Despite the large amounts of polystyrene used to create a variety of products ranging from packaging materials and bicycle helmets to smoke detector covers and Petri dishes, no company has yet been able to come up with an economical way to recycle polystyrene.
This state of affairs may be changing soon, if Oregon, US company Agilyx has anything to do with it. The company has recently commercialized a new method for recycling polystyrene into liquid styrene.
The company got its start in the plastics-to-oil industry. In this rapidly growing sector, mixed waste plastics products are converted into synthetic crude oil. By 2012, the company had produced over 800,000 gallons of oil from waste plastics. However, plunging oil prices in recent years have forced the company to look elsewhere for a way to make a profit using its equipment and processes.
That’s where polystyrene comes in. The management of Agilyx was looking for a single material with an underserved recycling market, and polystyrene fit the bill well.
Over the next few years, the company developed a process by which pyrolysis is used to clean recycled polystyrene and convert into liquid styrene. After the styrene is produced, it is sent to another company, which refines the styrene to a high level of purity. Finally, the styrene is sent to a resin manufacturer, where it is converted into resin that is used to manufacture new polystyrene products. According to the company, the resulting polystyrene is indistinguishable from non-recycled product.
Production is just beginning to ramp up at the company’s first commercial-scale recycling plant, which opened in April of this year. The recently completed facility is capable of processing up to 10 tonnes of polystyrene per day. The ability to recycle a previously unrecoverable material places Agilyx in a unique position to profit from a new and dynamic market with strong growth potential.
If you’d like to learn more about the new technology covered in this blog post, take a look at this article, which is based on an interview with the company’s CEO, Joe Vaillancourt.
It will be interesting to watch the evolution of what is currently a niche industry into what, in my opinion, will soon become an important part of the plastics industry.