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Plastic recycling

Recycled plastic in growing demand as Korean firms pursue ESG business

The prices of plastic waste rise as big companies like Samsung, LG and Hyundai strive to go greener

By Sep 27, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

Plastic recycling
Plastic recycling

Plastic recyclers have known for years that there is money to be made in plastic waste. And the stakes are high these days as the prices of recycled plastic materials soar amid a plastic recycling boom among major South Korean companies.

According to the country’s environment ministry, the price of squeezed polyethylene terephthalate (PET), widely used for plastic bottles and other packaging, rose to a record high of 319 won ($0.3) per kilogram in August, up 54% from 207 won a year earlier.

The prices of plastic flakes made from shredded polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) are also rising rapidly.

The price of PE flakes increased 17% to 548 won per kilogram last month from 467 won a year ago, while the PP flake price gained 16% on year to 493 won.

As governments, international agencies and companies pour investment capital into eco-friendly and green projects, the prices of materials used to make recycled plastic are rising globally.

According to S&P Global, the price of PET flakes surpassed that of new PET in June and surged to 1,435 euros per ton in August, as such materials are in greater use due to advanced recycling technology.

Plastic recycling
Plastic recycling

FROM WASTE TO NEW PLASTICS

Plastics are usually recycled mechanically: they are sorted, cleaned, shredded, melted and remolded. Each time plastic is recycled this way, its quality is degraded. When the plastic is melted, the polymer chains are partially broken down, decreasing its strength and viscosity, making it harder to process.

Also, many plastics, such as salad bags and other food containers, find their way to landfills because they are made up of a combination of different plastics that can't be easily split apart in a recycling plant.

To overcome these shortcomings, plastic recyclers are using chemical recycling, which turns even tainted plastic waste into new plastic products.

SK Geo Centric Co., formerly SK Global Chemical Co., said last month it will invest 5 trillion won ($4.3 million) by 2025 to set up plastic recycling plants with an annual capacity of 900,000 tons. The company plans to ramp up its capacity by 2027 to 2.5 million tons.

The company is already known for its plastic recycling technology, called depolymerization, which utilizes 100% of plastic waste into new plastics.

“We will virtually become the world’s largest ‘urban oil company’ that produces petrochemical materials by recycling used plastics,” said SK Geo Centric Chief Executive Na Kyung-soo at a corporate event on Aug. 31.

SK Global Chemical rebrands itself as a plastic recycler SK Geo Centric
SK Global Chemical rebrands itself as a plastic recycler SK Geo Centric

GROWING CORPORATE USE

Korean companies are stepping up efforts to go green, making environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards their core management theme, in line with the government’s pledge to go carbon neutral by 2050.

Hyundai Motor Co., Korea’s top automaker, uses recycled plastic worth about 32 PET water bottles in its latest electric car, the IONIQ5, per unit.

Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Electronics Inc., the country’s two largest home appliance makers, are also among the top users of recycled plastic.

LG said about 30% of the plastic in TVs and soundbars comes from recycled plastic waste contained in used cars and discarded home appliances.

LG, which used about 20,000 tons of used plastic last year, aims to use a total of 600,000 tons of recycled plastic from this year until 2030.

Samsung is also using plastic pellets made from discarded home appliances to make recycled plastic for monitor covers and signages.

Hanwha Solutions Corp. is developing technology that can transform plastic waste into naphtha or oil-like liquid by thermally decomposing used plastics.

Lotte Chemical Corp. said earlier this year it is investing about 100 billion won to build a 110,000 ton a year chemically recycled PET or C-rPET plant by 2024 and will increase the annual production capacity to 340,000 tons by 2030.

C-rPET is produced by chemically decomposing waste PET and then completing a polymerization process for refined materials. Colored and low-quality waste PET, which in the past was difficult to mechanically recycle, can also be used as the raw material with the C-rPET technology, without quality degradation even with repeated recycling, according to Lotte.

Write to Su-Bin Lee at lsb@hankyung.com

In-Soo Nam edited this article.

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