EU’s WhiteCycle Set to Tackle Complex Plastic Wastes

Today, multilayered, complex plastic wastes are rarely recycled. A European Union (EU)-funded project, coordinated by Michelin called WhiteCycle, is trying to help solve that problem. It’s focusing on mixed polyethylene terephthalate (PET) waste from multi-material clothing, end-of-life tires and hoses.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

December 1, 2022

5 Min Read
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Today, multilayered, complex plastic wastes are rarely recycled. A European Union (EU)-funded project, coordinated by Michelin called WhiteCycle, is trying to help solve that problem. It’s focusing on mixed polyethylene terephthalate (PET) waste from multi-material clothing, end-of-life tires and hoses.

The goal is to recover about 80 percent of PET from these materials and reintroduce it into the same applications.

WhiteCycle partners believe the project, if proven successful, could see that more than 2 million tons of PET are recycled and reused by 2030 and could realize a 2-million-ton reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

At the helm, Michelin’s charge is to vet technologies, identify more of them, and propose a business model with economic and environmental value to recover and use these hard-to-recycle plastics.

Its own corporate goal is for 100 percent of its tire parts to be sourced from recycled materials or biomass by 2050.

“But we can’t accomplish this alone. To create this transformation from end-of-life to raw materials requires bringing in partners with specialized expertise at every step,” says Jean-Michel Douarre, European Consortium director of WhiteCycle, who also heads Michelin’s program of research for sustainable materials.

WhiteCycle follows another EU project that was headed by Michelin to convert rubber into carbon black and resins to put back into new tires.

But the manufacturer is looking beyond feedstock for and from tires now, in response to the EU’s search for partners to help advance circularity for multiple applications as Europe aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030.

WhiteCycle moves forward with $7.1 euros from Horizon Europe, the EU’s research and innovation program, and is supported by 16 partners from (five European countries). They are a mix of experts, from technology developers that treat and sort materials, to waste management operations, lifecycle analysts, and a company working to secure more capital for the four-year project, which launched in July 2022.

Currently a few existing technologies are being vetted to see if they can be adapted for the three PET applications of focus. Hopeful plans are to finetune the systems and eventually scale for commercial deployment.

We have this whole transformation chain with all these specialists, each with a specific role to support the process [from collection to identifying materials with PET to extracting and processing it]. This is important, as we all need to work together to scale and come up with economically feasible and environmentally sound solutions,” Douarre says.

Among key WhiteCycle partners are IRIS Technology Solutions, a Spanish company who will use its sortation and material identification methodology and adapt it to work with PET. France-based Carbios will leverage its enzymatic process to break down plastic into monomers, then purify them. German company Deutsche Institute fur Textil (DITF) will then repolymerize the material to recreate PET and do any further processing if needed.  

Next, two partners will convert the resulting PET pellets into fibers that could be used in tires, textiles, and other applications. French Institute for Textiles and Clothing (IFTH) will make small volumes of fiber, and after the process is vetted, Turkish company Kordsa will make and supply larger volumes to Michelin for tires; to (Inditex) for clothes; and to Norwegian Company Mandals for hoses.

“The first output we look for is technology to identify and sort the PET from the waste, and it will take a year to determine how to best do this. As far as the biological recycling technology, we know Carbios’ method will work, but we have to learn how to use it efficiently,” Douarre says.

There are special considerations with each feedstock. For instance, recovering and processing multi-material clothes requires systems to identify the garments with PET, to sort, then select only the materials with PET, and to separate this polymer from other components.

“Bringing hard-to-recycle waste closer to circularity is a challenging goal for all the PET industry,” says Emmanuel Ladent, Carbios CEO.

Carbios is currently building its first industrial plant to treat up to 50,000 tons of packaging PET waste by 2025. But adjusting the technology to industrial expectations for more complex PET wastes like tires could take an additional couple of years.

However, the extra time needed is mainly due to the limitation of sorted PET feedstock from complex waste at ton scale, Ladent says.

Scaling automated sorting technology to efficiently separate PET from other components remains a main challenge.

This is where partner IRIS comes in. IRIS’s part will be to develop a monitoring system be able to sort, based on optical techniques capable of inline and real-time identification of complex materials, such as multi-layered PET-based clothing. IRIS has leveraged its technology previously to identify multilayer packaging and some complex plastics.

“As a first step, in WhiteCycle we are going to validate our real-time monitoring system for multilayered PET-based clothes in (Synergies) which is a waste management company working on the sorting and recycling of end-of-life clothing waste, work wear, and postproduction textile,” says Ana Maria Lopez-Sabiron, Project and Innovation manager, IRIS Technology Solutions.

She sees this as an opportunity not only to confirm the company’s technology will work for Synergies but to “create new sustainable possibilities for those who will use recycled PET [while] expanding IRIS’s portfolio of applications.”

Carbios’ Ladent sees similar benefits for his company.

“WhiteCycle will allow Carbios to validate its technology at pilot and pre-industrial scale. And broadening the feedstocks compatibility will democratize Carbios technology to a larger audience,” he says.

For Michelin, the project is an opportunity not just to support the EU in advancing circularity; the mega tire manufacturer is thinking of its own sustainability goals.

“Our first priority is reducing our environmental footprint and reaching our target for 100 percent sustainable tires by 2050,” says Douarre

“But we won’t be able to get enough material from tires, so we need other technologies and sources.  We believe we have to have this circular model in place.”

The hope is that what comes from WhiteCycle’s work can be used by others in time.

“The principle of a co-funded European project is to disseminate the results widely, meaning beyond the consortium partners. In that perspective, our work will have an even bigger positive environmental impact and Michelin will be proud to contribute.”  

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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