In 2019, we launched the DURAPRINT project to innovate new approaches to tackling our world’s plastic crisis. Together with leading recycling partners Indorama, Ioniqa, and Corbion, we have been looking at how we can move beyond traditional plastic recycling to fully circular methods and bio-based material alternatives.

The project brings together two approaches. The first is focused on developing PEF, a bio-based recyclable plastic made from plant based sugars. Working with the Dutch food and biochemicals company Corbion, we are exploring the full lifecycle of this material and the potential it holds as an alternative to PET plastic.

The second is centered around a form of PET recycling called chemical or PET monomer recycling. For this approach, we are working with Ioniqa, a clean-tech spinoff from the Eindhoven University of Technology. They are helping us break down PET trays—one of the most difficult to recycle multi-layered plastics—into their base molecules through a depolymerization process. By doing so, they can transform the trays back into pristine BHET (the main building block of PET). This BHET is then sent to Indorama, one of the world’s top PET producers, to create a material identical to their virgin materials. Closing this recycling loop, the Reflow team is testing the viability of using this PET to create our signature 3D printing filament.

With so many players and moving parts, we’re taking a moment to dive deeper into this second approach with the help of Ioniqa’s CFO, Jeroen Bulk. In our Q&A with him below, he shares more about the fascinating world of chemical recycling, from the science of how it works to its role in the transition to circular manufacturing systems.

To start off, what is chemical recycling?

Chemical, or monomer recycling as it is also called, is a general name for anything not classified as mechanical recycling. Whereas mechanical recycling takes a waste stream; washes, grinds, shreds it and then turns it into a new product, chemical recycling, breaks the waste stream down into its individual material components. For instance, PET can be broken down into the base molecule BHET, which is a monomer. Once you have the monomer, you can make that into a plastic again with a simple polymerization step. Chemical recycling can also break PET down even further, separating BHET into ethylene glycol and PTA. By breaking the material down to the molecular level, we can remove any impurities and transform the waste stream into a virgin-quality level. With mechanical recycling, on the other hand, you can’t remove dye from the plastic, it’s difficult to break down multilayer materials, and you also can’t recycle a non-food material into a food-safe material.

What are the different types of chemical recycling, and which one does Ioniqa do?

You have pyrolysis on one end of the spectrum which transforms very difficult to recycle plastics like polyethylene and polypropylene into fuels like naphtha or syngas. And then you have a process called solvolysis, which covers three types of methods:

  • Glycolysis: breaks PET down into BHET and is the method we use at Ioniqa
  • Hydrolysis: breaks PET down into PTA and BET using water
  • Methanolysis: breaks PET down into DMT and ethylene glycol using methanol

Glycolysis is generally regarded as the most efficient method because you don’t need to put that much energy into breaking the PET down, and you also don’t need as much energy to build the monomers back into a PET resin.

What is Ioniqa’s core technology?

Our core technology is called Magnetic Smart Process (MSP), which uses magnetic nanocatalysts to reduce PET plastic waste to its original building materials (monomers). We continue to enhance our proprietary catalyst over the years that can break down polycondensates, including PET, polyester, polyamide, and polyurethane. Essentially, what we do is take PET waste, typically PET trays or bottles, and put them into a big reactor with ethylene glycol and our catalyst. We heat that up and the depolymerization process starts. After depolymerization, the material goes through various separation steps in the factory. In the end, it comes out as something in-between a powder and a pellet. By 2022, our goal is to license our technology to other PET recyclers around the world. We could keep doing it on our own, building one factory at a time, but that’s not going to make the impact we need to solve our society’s plastic problem.

Where and how widely is chemical recycling used now?

In the PET field, chemical recycling is not widely used yet. Ioniqa will likely be the first in the market to have an industrial-scale 10 kiloton chemical recycling plant. There are other chemical recycling initiatives, but most of them are in the pyrolysis area. Pyrolysis plants generally start from 200-400 kilotons, but our plants are already viable at 10 kilotons when running at full capacity. Given the stage of development, we expect to be able to quickly start 50 kiloton factories, where the technology is licensed to industry partners.

Cost-wise, how does Ioniqa’s method of chemical recycling compare with mechanical recycling or virgin materials?

We are competitive with oil-based pricing. Only when PET waste streams are very expensive and the barrel price is extremely low, do they out-compete us. However, that’s really neither here nor there because plastic prices are currently quickly rising and far off from what they need to be to be significantly cheaper than our output. Additionally, because brands want sustainable materials, we see a strong need for the product. Matching virgin and mechanically recycled materials in that sense is more than sufficient to scale up.

One of the oft-cited drawbacks of chemical recycling is that it's very energy intensive. Can that energy input be scaled down?

It starts off with understanding what is meant by “energy-intensive”. Our latest life-cycle assessment (LCA), which is largely based on energy consumption, found that products made with our recycled BHET have a 75% lower carbon footprint than virgin materials. Our only consumables are electricity and gas, and we don’t heat the materials up to a tremendous amount. If you look at a PET factory, it goes up to around 600 degrees, while ours don’t even reach 200. Everything else we use stays in the system—water, ethylene glycol, the catalyst—it’s all re-used again. Our LCA accounts for two generations of the product. Products can be infinitely recycled, but if we accounted for that, we’d be off the charts. As for mechanical recycling, our LCA is comparable.

Can this technology be used for different types of plastic other than PET?

The polycondensate family is something that we should be able to handle, but we are taking things one step at a time and focusing on only PET packaging first. The second step is polyester fibres, and then polyamides and polyurethane, which we are already researching with success.

What is Ioniqa’s role in the PET supply chain?

Our role is to make sure that we close the loop so that PET doesn’t end up in a landfill or incinerator. Currently, PET waste streams come to us, we make them into BHET, and then we sell that BHET to Indorama Ventures for them to transform into a PET resin. When we start licensing our technology, we will see PET producers take the technology in-house. So rather than buying BHET from us, they’ll buy PET waste and start doing it themselves.

What are the key barriers to scaling chemical recycling?

It’s not the market, because the market is screaming for it. However, PET waste availability can be an issue as people are used to simply sticking difficult to recycle PET into the incinerator. They need to see that it’s worthwhile to sort out, and we believe that people will start to see that. A key element here would be government regulation. The former Dutch secretary of state, Stientje van Veldhoven, was a strong advocate for legislation that prohibited the incineration of recyclable materials, and in 2022, a new EU plastics tax will charge €800 per ton of non-recycled plastic waste. But for innovative companies like us and our competitors, the major hurdle is always financing. Luckily, we have benefitted from the Dutch government’s Innovatiekrediet loan and DEI subsidy.

Who are the key players in chemical recycling right now, and what are they doing?

In addition to Ioniqa, we have identified four other big PET chemical recyclers:

  • Loop Industries in Canada, which does methanolysis
  • Garbo in Italy, which does glycolysis
  • Carbios in France, which does hydrolysis with enzymes
  • Gr3n in Switzerland, which does hydrolysis using a microwave technique

There are others all over the world, but, like us, these four have or are creating industrial plants.

What is chemical recycling’s role in creating circular manufacturing systems?

At the moment, a lot of PET is incinerated or goes into landfills because mechanical recycling simply falls short. As I mentioned before, mechanical recycling cannot remove color or dye from plastic or separate multilayer products like a PET tray or cheese wrapper. It also can’t recycle a non-food material into a food-safe material. In that sense, chemical recycling can be complimentary to mechanical recycling, recycling the items that mechanical recycling can’t handle. But mechanical recycling also has other limitations—you can only mechanically recycle a product maybe five or six times before the polymer strands degrade and it has to be downcycled into a fiber or something else. There also may be a buildup of impurities because the product can’t be completely cleaned as it can with chemical recycling. This means it’s not truly circular. For a long time, the two methods of recycling can coexist, but it could very well be that chemical recycling will take it all in the end due to these limitations.

Is that Ioniqa’s vision for the future?

We’re not here to put anybody out of business. Everything has a purpose. Our dream is to make sure that we can tackle everything that is currently being burnt or going into a landfill or nature, and that we can handle as many PET waste streams as possible. Polyester textiles, for instance, are second on the list for us to bring to industrial scale.

Collaboration is key

The project – coined “DURAPRINT” – is done together with Indorama, the world’s largest PET producer and Corbion, a world leader in the production of bio-based materials. By combining leading players in plastic manufacturing with our sustainable approach to 3D printing, we can make the future of 3D printing truly sustainable and pave the way for these technologies to be implemented by a wide variety of industries.

This programme is supported by the European Union, KansenvoorWest subsidy.


Founder & CEO
Papa Reflow. Loving father of two, Serial RomCommer and climber