Licella advanced recycling facility takes on plastic waste

No one person can solve the problem of plastic recycling, says Simon Mathewson.

The Commercial Lead in Australia and New Zealand for Advanced Plastic Recycling at Licella, Simon says it will take a collective understanding across industry of the need to move in the same direction to achieve results.

Thanks to what he describes as an evolution of modern manufacturing, Australia is headed in the right direction.

Licella is about 18 months from opening the first full-scale plastics advanced recycling facility in Australia using hydrothermal liquefaction – an innovative technology that uses hot pressurised water to take plastic back to the oil it originally came from.

The company, under Advanced Recycling Victoria (ARV), has an Environment Protection Authority development licence for stage one of the facility to be built at the old Dow Chemical site, in Altona, Victoria. Construction is expected to begin within months and the company has ambitious goals to be operational by the second half of 2024.

Simon says it’s an unprecedented opportunity to support local technology that reduces emission, compared to waste-to-energy and keeps more plastic in circulation compared to other approaches such as pyrolysis.

“If Australia is serious about reaching its plastic waste targets and addressing plastic waste and pollution, we need to embrace new technology such as advanced recycling,” he says. “We need consumers thinking about what’s possible and what’s not. We need government asking what do we expect? And we need industry to be open to new technology and asking how do we adapt to that? Aligning those three things takes bold, brave and collective action.

“What we’re doing is really important but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. We all need to lean in.”

Licella advanced recycling
The Licella Cat-HTR commercial demonstration facility in Somersby, on the NSW Central Coast, runs trials for the commercial facilities under development around the world (including ARV).

Simon says Australia has a more mature, and growing, mechanical recycling market but that isn’t the answer for all waste. And while energy-from-waste is recognition of the value in waste, when you burn it, it’s gone. Plastics is no different from other recycling streams in that it needs circularity.

Advanced (or chemical) recycling, Simon says, is the next step in working with industry to close the loop across the vast majority of plastics still going to landfill.

Licella’s Cat-HTR (Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor) platform, uses water to create a controlled reaction that means it’s a less energy intensive process and produces a better yield of oil than pyrolysis. It creates a high-grade oil, which is suitable to go back into the local plastic supply chain without any further purification steps. Ultimately, this helps keep more plastic in circulation and further reduces the demand for virgin plastic from fossil resources.

Simon describes soft plastics feedstock as the immediate priority for the recycling plant. They will play an important role due to the lack of soft plastic recycling options at scale currently, but Licella is looking to fill the gap for a broader range of advanced plastic recycling.

“We have value chain partners across post-consumer, post-industrial and agricultural sectors,” he says. “All of those sectors produce plastic waste, and it all needs to be recycled.

“Post-consumer plastic is great, but it’s not the only plastic that needs a home. This is a much bigger problem that we’re looking to solve.”

Licella is in discussion with organisations across the value chain including waste management, large retailers, and industrial waste producers, to ensure a diverse range of plastic feedstock for the facility. Simon says once the facility has proven circularity of hard-to-recycle plastics it will expand to absorb other waste plastic feedstocks that are currently not collected because there’s nowhere for them to go.

One of the advantages of chemical recycling is that it’s working with the supply chain of plastics, not trying to change it.

Simon says that the building blocks, or chemicals, of the oil produced by Cat-HTR are the same as refined fossil oils. He says demand for offtake requests for the oil from ARVs advanced recycling plant are already extraordinary.

In December 2022, global packaging company Amcor announced it will collaborate with Licella on ARV’s Altona facility, to support the production of new food-grade recycled plastic packaging.

Licella has ambitions to process 400,000 tonnes of plastic waste across Australia within the next five to 10 years.

ARV’s Altona facility initially aims to process 20,000 tonnes a year of waste plastic and is expected to scale up to 70,000 tonnes with an additional 50,000 tonne module added once the next approval comes through from the Victorian EPA.

The Altona plant is one of six currently being built around the world including three in South Korea and others in the United Kingdom and Japan. Plans are also in place for New South Wales and New Zealand.

“We’re already developing a pipeline for this technology in Australia,” Simon says. “We need to be doing this at scale to meet our ambitious national waste targets.

“What we’ve always focused on is circularity in an Australian context. We’d like to be in a position where we are recycling all the plastic Australia produces.

“If the plastic used in Australian produce packaging is manufactured locally – that would be an example of a true plastic circular economy in action.”

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