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How can molecular recycling transform the acrylic industry?

Everything we do revolves around the methacrylate molecule – the “building block” of acrylic which has improved people’s quality of life around the world, decade after decade.

Acrylic’s role in your daily life has always been what drives us, but we’re equally driven by the goal of recycling it, minimising its impact on the environment to create a sustainable world for future generations.

In partnership with Agilyx Corporation, we’re aiming to open a European recycling site for acrylic sheet (PMMA) by 2023, using a process called molecular recycling.

But why is molecular recycling the way forward? Why is it superior to other processes?

Well, molecular recycling turns acrylic (PMMA) back into the methacrylate molecule it came from (MMA). This recycled MMA can then be used to make new acrylic products.

David Smith, our Circular Economy Programme Lead, says it’s important to understand why this makes molecular recycling more of a circular solution than traditional, mechanical recycling methods. He says:

“Mechanical recycling grinds acrylic down into granules which new acrylic can be made from. The drawback here is that it can only be done a few times before the polymer breaks down and the quality of the material degrades.

“Molecular recycling, on the other hand, sees acrylic fed into a pyrolysis unit – a high-temperature unit which separates the material into its constituent parts. This produces crude MMA which is then, through a detailed refining process to remove any impurities, turned into recycled MMA of the highest quality.”

This makes molecular recycling a truly circular solution, as the material’s quality is never compromised. But, as David stresses, it’s important not to confuse molecular recycling with chemical recycling:

“Chemical recycling is often used to describe the process where plastics are converted into oil to use as fuel. Again, a drawback of this is that it’s not fully circular. With molecular recycling, there’s no limit on how often PMMA can be recycled.”

So, our PMMA recycling project – with molecular recycling at the core – really is the way forward for achieving a circular economy.

For the entire acrylic industry, this is a huge boost on the journey towards being fully sustainable. Think of what this offers…

Acrylic manufacturers & fabricators will be able to offer their customers totally circular, fully sustainable products. They’ll also have the potential to redesign unsustainable products which currently use non-recyclable materials, transforming them into new, improved, sustainable products by using acrylic.

This will be an important step towards meeting the ever-increasing sustainability requirements of consumers and governments alike.

End-users will have a much wider choice of circular products that can be used over and over again, helping to reduce waste to landfill or incineration.

What comes next?

Right now, we’re working hard with Agilyx to refine the molecular recycling technology. We’re also talking to a range of European waste management companies to find the right partners – this is really important for long-term success and finding the best ways to source end-of-life acrylic.

And, on top of this, we’ll be finalising where our recycling site is going to be. Plenty to look forward to, which we’ll keep you updated on as things move forward.