Making new plastic materials by using waste plastic! Interview with a PCR ABS Product Development researcher
2020. 08. 28
2020. 08. 28
LG Chem has been running a research and development project for the past year on recycling plastic waste to make a new plastic material. PCR-ABS plastic products which can reach the same materialistic standards as existing plastic products is their core research. We made recycled white plastic using newly found techniques in the chemical industry. The waste plastic recycling business is the fastest approach to achieving LG Chem’s 2050 carbon emissions reduction goal, and will continue to grow. Why don’t we talk in more detail with two researchers each involved with the project for developing and researching products for customers whilst following market trends and considering eco-friendly cycles.
Hello. Please introduce yourself and your work.
Kim Seo-hwa: Hello. I am Kim Seo-hwa and I am a lead developer in charge of developing ABS materials at the Styrenics Center HME PJT in the Petrochemical Research Institute. The field that I’m mainly researching is developing PCR (Post-Consumer Recycled) ABS using waste plastic as raw materials, developing materials to recreate the trendy metallic look of premium home appliances using plastic without any painting processes and developing extrusion materials strengthened by chemical resistance for use in refrigerators equipped with eco-friendly blowing agents.
Kim Chang-sul: Hello. I am Kim Chang-sul and I am a lead planner in charge of planning new materials for consumer electronics and home appliance goods as part of the ABS department at LG Chem Petrochemical Business Division. Our business department identifies the unique material characteristics and current regulations required for various products and works with the R&D team to discover and suggest marketable products.
Please briefly explain for the readers what LG Chem’s ABS is.
Kim Seo-hwa, Kim Chang-sul: ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) is one of LG Chem’s core plastics developed by the Petrochemical Business Division and holds the highest market share in the world. ABS is a highly processed, highly functional plastic with excellent anti-shock and heat resistance qualities, available in various shapes and colors. LG Chem produces over 2.05 million tons of ABS per year both domestically and internationally, used as a material for various products including home appliances, office equipment, automotive interior and exterior materials and also toys.
Then what is this PCR-ABS material that the two of you have collaborated on and developed/researched?
Kim Seo-hwa: PCR material refers to post-consumer recycled material, a plastic material made from recycling actual plastic used and thrown away by customers. It is a new technique that we researched to make a new material, which involves a process of collecting used products from the end-consumer, crushing and separating them. Our research goal was to make the PCR-ABS a product of equal standard to existing plastic (ABS) materials. When comparing products made with currently existing plastics, plastics made with PCR-ABS materials have reached a point of such high quality that the naked eye cannot distinguish the difference.
What made you start this business?
Kim Seo-hwa: It is said that approximately 360 million tons of plastic is manufactured across the world (as of 2018). Among these, only 40% of the plastic is collected for recycling purposes. Thinking that we needed to reduce the amount of plastic thrown away and also make an eco-friendlier product, we began the research and development project for PCR-ABS.
Kim Chang-sul: Firstly, I think that PCR-ABS has extremely high marketability. That is because as national environmental protection regulations are being strengthened across the world, there are also increasing business policies for recycled plastic to be used as raw materials. Additionally, it is a great opportunity for consumers and businesses together to contribute value and think about the cycle economy.
I hear there are many ways to recycle plastic. What kinds of recycling methods are there and what’s the principles behind it?
Kim Seo-hwa, Kim Chang-sul: That is correct. There are multiple ways to recycle plastic, such as mechanical recycling, chemical recycling and thermal recycling.
Firstly, mechanical recycling changes only the physical shape of the collected plastic without changing the chemical composition and re-manufactures it after picking the same plastic raw materials. Examples include some polyolefin and PET materials in Korea.
Chemical recycling is a method where the chemical composition of the recycled plastic itself is changed. A weakness of the method is that the reaction and process required to force a change in chemical composition is extremely meticulous and cannot be used in resin, such as multi-component materials like ABS. Therefore, it is limited to plastics consisting of single materials, such as PE(Polyethylene), PP(Polypropylene) and PS(Polystyrene).
Lastly, thermal recycling is a heat energy collection method that utilizes the high heat value of recycled plastic. This is known as a fuel-type method, and is known to be less efficient in recycling due to hazardous materials and energy generated during the burning of plastics.
Recently, among the many plastic recycling methods, mechanical recycling, which can be recycled into the same plastic as the original (existing) plastic without affecting the composition and structure of the plastic, has become a hot topic. We also ended up developing PCR-ABS material through mechanical recycling. However, it is important to separate plastics by their type as much as possible because plastic mixed with other materials is difficult to use and can cause large drops in mechanical quality, appearance, and manufacturability.
What was the process like developing PCR-ABS?
Kim Seo-hwa: Firstly, specialist recycling firms collect thrown away household and plastic products, then they convert it into a pellet form, which is the initial raw stage. The first stage is to sort out the pellets provided. Plastics are divided into different categories PP, PE, PS and also ABS, with the process of separating ABS the most important. As expected, whilst the need for plastic recycling grows not only at LG Chem but also across the world, separation techniques are developing as well. This technology is used to remove impurities during separation, making it purer. The final product is then made by mixing this recycled material with new raw materials.
What are the advantages of LG Chem PCR-ABS and technology gained from this research and development?
Kim Seo-hwa, Kim Chang-sul: The advantages of our LG Chem’s PCR-ABS is technology that makes white recycled plastic with quality that is on par with existing plastics. There haven’t been any developments in white recyclable plastic in the world. Only dark colored plastics (black, grey) can be made because of how waste plastic comes in different colors and is mixed together. Most of the raw recycled plastic materials supplied by the company that is developing PCR-ABS with us are also produced in black and grey, which made it difficult to develop products with high white color.
That is why our research team and color design team decided on a color figure to change the grey color to white and in order to overcome the differences between the colors, we looked closely into the existing technologies at LG Chem. The main focus of our research was to choose and mix white pigments and then developing a key recipe to better highlight the white colors. As a result of long research and analysis, when comparing the materials in the interior walls of refrigerators, it is revealed that the white color is excellent and through this result, we were able to find our end-solution, PCR-ABS.
Some difficulties you faced whilst performing research and development? Also, any part required for a more developed future?
Kim Seo-hwa: Whilst developing PCR, the most difficult thing was, unlike developing other new products, we had to make products using materials with characteristics that we had no control over. Even if we used various techniques to improve the quality, there was a limit to completely overcoming problems with the PCR source (products used by end-consumers), such as color, foreign objects and the materials. This flustered me in the early stages of my research because I was not sure if I could surpass the limits of PCR products and make a product that customers would be satisfied with and I was not confident about the business prospects either.
Fortunately, we have overcome many difficulties and succeeded in developing a product, but for the sustainability of the PCR material market, it is essential to have as many cleanly filtered PCR sources as possible. To achieve this, in the initial stage when developing household appliances that use plastic, it is necessary to select easily separable and dischargeable materials, product compositions, colors, etc. and to establish a system to facilitate the easy circulation of these plastics.
Kim Chang-sul: From a product planning perspective, it was most difficult to come up with new ideas for developing products whilst having a point of view in terms of a resource recycling ecosystem. It truly was not easy making a product that is not just simply resin mixed together, but a product that could exceed customer expectations.
Of course, I cannnot mention enough how pleasing it is to find the solution to an extremely difficult problem. However, we will need a lot of policy support to build a domestic circulation ecosystem. Active policy support such as informing people that recycled plastic is not waste and is a part of sustainable life, providing incentives to customers to recycle or nurturing mid-sized groups to participate in building a recycling ecosystem.
Lastly, please talk about your future goals and visions!
Kim Seo-hwa: Through plenty of failures and hard work, we finished developing our PCR technology in June this year. We have confirmed that PCR production is possible on our existing ABS manufacturing lines. Whilst we are in the stage of introducing our new product to many clients, because of the different product shape, design and color needs of each client, our goal is to develop PCR materials according to their needs and complete the full delivery. Additionally, in order to secure a leading position within the PCR-ABS market, starting with this developed product, we want to develop a product with an even higher PCR content. Our end goal is to develop recyclable plastics such as researched and developed products with new colors suitable for PCR materials or securing a variety of PCR sources. Ultimately, we want to contribute to LG Chem’s sustainability strategy and develop various, easy to re-use materials.
Kim Chang-sul: Actually, I think this is the beginning stage. But what’s for certain is that it has to be recycled for the customer. We need to apply more advanced technology in terms of quality to help our customers, and collaborate with our customers to build a proper cycle ecosystem, not just products for recycling. We will try to ponder and develop ideas at the work site so that LG Chem is going to be the first to propose recycled products made of transparent materials in the market, and to be recycling for the customer rather than simply just recycling.
Plastic is no longer rubbish and requires more development so that its natural uses can also provide value to society. In addition to the efforts of individuals, policy support, active corporate research and investment will be essential. LG Chem will continue to take the lead in the study of sustainable materials to establish a cyclical ecosystem of plastics and other resources.