Adrian Wilson charts some of the latest advances in the recycling of fibres and plastics for a circular economy

The entire plastics industry has its origins in synthetic fibres and effectively came into existence with the invention of nylon (polyamide) by Wallace Carothers at Dupont in the 1930s, leading to a further explosion of synthetic polymers like the now widely used polypropylene, high-density polyethylene, PET and polyester, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane.

It is only relatively recently, however, that the end-of-life options for all the products based on these polymers, whether hard plastics or textiles, has emerged as an issue that urgently needs to be addressed.

The year 2018 marked a sea-change due to the widespread media attention to the issue of non-degrading plastics in the oceans, as well as other issues like the so-called 'fatbergs' caused by synthetic wipes in sewer systems.

The potential in plastics recycling and alternative materials now has the full attention of investors and there is plenty of money and support available for any technology that can provide the industry with ways forward.

Today, however, well over 300 million tonnes of plastics, in addition to 66 million tonnes of synthetic fibres, are produced annually, posing varying degrees of challenge to recycling, especially when employed in combinations.

PET recycling

The recycling of PET polyester has been at an advanced stage for some time, with leading non-wovens manufacturer Freudenberg Performance Materials, for example, currently recycling around seven million PET bottles a day.

(Indorama Ventures (IVL) has highly integrated and automated operations for turning PET bottles into pellets and flakes, or back into bottles.)

Indorama Ventures (IVL) is one of the biggest manufacturers of synthetic fibres and fibre feedstock in the world, and its subsidiary Wellman is the leading European producer of polyester staple fibre from recycled PET material. It is also the largest recycler of plastic bottles in Europe, converting some 2.2 billion bottles each year. Further IVL recycling operations are now in place in the United States, Mexico and Thailand.