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From laboratory to market: Canadian researcher discovers a greener way to recycle plastic

Harinder Takhar getting a tour of the Fielding Chemical property that will house the new plastics recycling area.

Ontario’s Minister of Government Services and MPP for Mississauga-Erindale, Harinder Takhar (second from left) recently toured the Fielding Chemical property that will house Switchable Solutions’ new plastics recycling area.

Photo credit: Rob Beintema, Mississauga News

From take-out food containers to foam packaging, polystyrene is ubiquitous in our culture. Yet polystyrene, commonly used as food and beverage containers, including expandable polystyrene foam (EPS), are not materials that are easy to recycle. In fact, today these items are most often sent to landfill.

This is about to change. A researcher and chemist at Queen’s University, Dr. Phillip Jessop, has discovered a green, organic solvent system that can be used to recycle plastic in a cost-efficient and environmentally friendly way. On the strength of Dr. Jessop’s discovery, a company called Switchable Solutions was formed in April 2011 to bring the technology to market. Switchable Solutions represents the first spin-off company of GreenCentre Canada, a national Centre of Excellence for Commercialization and Research based in Kingston, Ontario.

Switchable Solutions is set to build a plastics recycling plant in Mississauga that will be capable of recycling approximately two million kilograms per year of post-consumer plastic materials. The facility is expected to commence operations in fall of 2012.

“We can’t get into production quick enough,” says Mark Badger, President and CEO of Switchable Solutions. “There is such an appetite for clean recycled plastic materials enabled by our unique process. Not only will this be a way for companies to save money, it will be a way for companies to satisfy the groundswell of consumer pressure for recycled materials.”

Recycling in an energy-efficient way

Essentially, Dr. Jessop discovered a solvent system that doesn’t require energy-intensive distillation associated with conventional solvent systems  “Dr. Jessop’s green solvent uses nominal temperature and pressure—no distillation is required. So you can apply solvents to processes that were previously too expensive. That’s the magic” noted Badger. The company’s system operates as a closed loop, with solvents utilized being recaptured at the end of the process so they can be used again and again.

The process has the potential to divert as much as 50,000 tonnes of waste from landfills every year. The technology will be applied to other applications, including the efficient and low-energy removal of bitumen from oil sands.

"One focus of Switchable Solutions is on plastics recycling. But another initial focus target is oil sands processing, and interest from the oil patch is growing,” Badger says. The company’s process has the potential to dramatically reduce energy usage associated with current oil sands processes, while at the same time eliminating the need for tailing ponds, making it attractive for both economic and environmental reasons.

The role of GreenCentre Canada

So how did Dr. Jessop’s discovery make it from laboratory to market so seamlessly? According to Badger, GreenCentre Canada played a key role. “GreenCentre has a great lab and a bevy of talented scientists,” he says. “They were able to validate potential applications and find a few more.”

Funded by the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario, the goal of GreenCentre Canada is to bring together academic researchers and industry partners in order to find cleaner, energy efficient alternatives to traditional chemical products and manufacturing processes. The centre provides services that are critical to the commercialization of early-stage technologies.

“We are looking for the very early stage technologies—stuff that is game-changing, even though fraught with risk,” says Dr. Rui Resendes, Executive Director of GreenCentre. The technology must be potentially viable from a business perspective and it must fit with GreenCentre’s environmental mandate. If a technology meets these criteria, GreenCentre will get involved in helping to commercialize it.

“At the beginning of the adventure, when a researcher is working on a test, they are not thinking about manufacturing,” says Resendes. “Researchers focus on the academic; they can generate the technology. But they have no ability to develop it further—researchers get published for discovery, not for determining applications. Things can get held up in a frustrating loop, where an academic has a great idea, but no way to move forward. That’s where we come in.”

The connections between discovery and marketplace

Innovations need to be validated and the practical applications of the discoveries carefully worked out, explains Resendes. In addition, there are a plethora of other issues to consider: What are the relevant regulations? What are the costs associated with production? Where can you obtain inputs into the process? What should be the sale price?

To address these needs, GreenCentre provides everything from technical and market assessment, scale-up and testing to intellectual property protection, business management and financial resources. GreenCentre’s product and application development activities are housed in an 8,000 square foot state-of-the-art wet and dry lab facility that includes solvent-handling systems, inert atmosphere glove boxes and standard analytical equipment. At the heart of the centre’s analytical lab is a 400 MHz multi-nuclear NMR spectrometer.

Resendes explains that GreenCentre serves as a connector between industry and the research community by staying in touch with industry needs and communicating those to researchers—and vice versa.

Unleashing innovation on industry

“Every researcher I have interacted with wants to create a technology that will have a positive societal impact,” says Resendes. “The intentions are good; what is missing is the industry intelligence. We take the guesswork out.”

He explains that GreenCentre has developed relationships with industry partners that allow it to obtain candid industry input. GreenCentre also makes a point of soliciting industry input from the very beginning of the process of developing a technology.

The response has been overwhelming, “As a national clearinghouse, we already have more attention than we can handle,” says Resendes.

“To unleash innovation on industry, there needs to be a connecting role,” says Badger.
“Sometimes that can be by means of an introduction—bringing people from industry and academia together. Other times, it can be by means of setting up a company.”

“There is a wealth of innovation and research that is being harboured within academia,” he says. “It just has to be leveraged.”

About GreenCentre Canada
GreenCentre Canada is a Networks of Centres of Excellence based in Kingston, Ontario, and the parent company of Switchable Solutions. Its goal is to transform green chemistry research breakthroughs into clean, sustainable products and processes that will benefit Canada and the world.

About Switchable Solutions:
Switchable Solutions Inc. specializes in the design and operation of customized green chemical process technologies. The company's proprietary Switchable Hydrophilicity Solvent (SHS) system provides a greener and less expensive alternative to costly and environmentally damaging organic solvents.
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