Innovation competition for two unique plastics in recycling

The state of Colorado is on a mission to improve end markets for recycling and composting, and it uses show biz flair to do so. Case in point: the NextCycle Colorado Pitch Competition, a kind of “Shark Tank” for Colorado-based entrepreneurs, where up-and-coming recycling-related companies pitch their ideas to investors.

NextCycle Colorado, a business accelerator program that supports recycled or reclaimed content manufacturing solutions in the state, hosted the 2022 NextCycle Colorado Pitch Contest on June 22, 2022 in Boulder.

Funded by the Colorado Department of Public Health, NextCycle Colorado provides organizations with the resources and expertise to take their recycling and composting projects to the next level.

Nine teams participated in NextCycle’s 2022 pitch competition. A competitive application process was used to select the teams, whose ideas ranged from a hyperlocal composting operation to a quarry waste recycling project.

Two of the teams had particularly intriguing plots involving plastics: Trash Panda, a start-up that recycles trash into a product used in disc golf; and a duo of scientists from the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), who recycle textile waste using a new approach to chemical recycling.

Trash Panda uses recycled plastic to make small discs called minis, which are used as markers in disc golf (aka frisbee golf) tournaments, an increasingly popular sport.

In 2021, Trash Panda launched its first products – 100% recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE) minis and polypropylene (PP) minis. Trash Panda founder and CEO Jesse Stedman initially produced the records by hand on an injection molding machine he built in his garage.

In early 2022, the company was able to move its disc manufacturing from Stedman’s garage to injection molder LTM Plastics’ Denver plant. Trash Panda sources its raw material (regrind plastic) from Denver-based recycler Direct Polymers.

Trash Panda plans a global launch of full-size recycled discs in October 2022. Stedman expects that within the next five years, his company will be able to divert 200,000 pounds of easy and hard-to-recycle plastics from landfills annually.

“We plan to make minis out of the most commonly produced plastics in our world, most likely anything from #1 to #6,” Stedman said. plastics today. “Because Trash Panda’s “minis” are not Performance-based, our goals are to have the greatest impact possible through our production of 100% recycled minis. Currently, our minis [molded by LTM] are made from 100% recycled polypropylene.

The minis are also recyclable, with the type of plastic marked on the bottom of each. They “can be recycled by any recycler that works with that specific type of plastic,” Stedman says. “One day we hope to also offer our own version of circularity for our products.”

Image courtesy of NREL.Kevin-Sullivan-NREL_1-720x555.png

Researchers like Kevin Sullivan are looking for a path to low-energy depolymerization of textiles using abundant catalysts.

Low cost textile depolymerization at NREL.

A very different pitch, from a two-person team of NREL employees, highlighted a new technology for converting plastic textile waste into usable raw materials for manufacturing.

The technology uses oxidative depolymerization, a form of chemical recycling. The technique can be used to depolymerize mixed plastics, eliminating costly material separation steps, and is resistant to contaminants and additives in textile waste; it has been validated with post-consumer plastics and mixed composition textiles.

Using metal catalysts and oxygen from the air, the system converts polyesters into their monomeric building blocks. The catalysts are inexpensive and abundant transition metal salts.

The exothermic depolymerization reaction occurs in a relatively mild temperature range — below 230°C/446°F — and requires limited energy inputs. In contrast, current commercial chemical recycling technologies require large energy inputs, which increases processing costs and increases the carbon footprint.

Inorganic chemist Kevin Sullivan and organic chemist Mikhail Konev, both postdoctoral researchers at NREL, have been developing the process in the lab for three years.

“Our goal is to incorporate a spin-off company in the coming months that will work to commercialize this technology in conjunction with NREL, through a cooperative research and development agreement,” Konev said.

“Current efforts are focused on scaling up the process, performing more detailed techno-economic analyzes and life cycle assessment calculations, and measuring the properties and performance of recycled materials,” he explains. -he..

Although neither the NREL scientists nor Trash Panda secured any investments during the pitch competition, both teams found the experience rewarding.

“We’ve received very positive feedback,” Sullivan says, noting that the competition has allowed her team to set up several meetings with venture capitalists. “Many people are interested in finding a practical solution to deal with textile waste and have been enthusiastic about our technology.”

Sullivan adds, “I think people are resonating trying to deal with this waste stream. Every second, approximately one dump truck’s worth of textiles is landfilled or incinerated. This really puts the magnitude of the problem into perspective.

Martin E. Berry