Interview with Dale Rautenbach, the Manufacturing Director of Recycling Technologies
ChemEngSoc Tour Officer, Siyu (Helen) Guo recently spoke with Dale Rautenbach, the Manufacturing Director from Recycling Technologies. The first half of the interview focuses on the company’s technical aspects and the development of the RT7000, and the second on Dale’s career journey and advice. Founded in 2011, Recycling Technologies is an innovative enterprise tackling the global plastic crisis. Firmly following the 3R principle (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), Recycling Technologies believe that plastic can be an excellent material and that innovation in plastic recycling is pivotal.
Plastic - A treasure, A dilemma, A future
If you are environmentally aware, then you are probably familiar with the issues around plastic disposal. Plastic covers every aspect of our lives as it is much lighter, more versatile, and cheaper than most other materials. It is widely used in food packaging, building construction, automotive, electronics, healthcare, energy, and other fields.
Plastics become troublesome when it turns into waste. According to the data from PlasticsEurope, only 12% of plastic eventually gets recycled in 2018, out of 360 million tonnes produced globally; the rest is either sent to landll, incinerated, or ends up in the environment.
Recycling methods can be categorised into two types: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical recycling preserves the molecular structure of plastic. It crushes down plastic and remelts it into granulates or pellets. Instead, chemical recycling breaks down the polymer chain of plastic and turns it back into oil, from which new plastic can be produced. Chemical recycling is more carbon-intensive than mechanical recycling, but it is able to recycle soft plastic which mechanical recycling cannot handle. When selecting a recycling method, we always aim for a more carbon-efficient method. Therefore, Recycling Technologies' RT7000 will be a game-changer to innovate the current recycling infrastructure and increase our chances towards a 100 % recycling target.
RT7000: From the beginning
After nearly a decade of dedicated research and a series of pioneering work, Recycling Technologies has developed the core technology: the RT7000, which turns hard-to-recycle plastic such as films, bags, and laminated plastics into an oil, Plaxx®, used as a feedstock for new plastic production. The RT7000 is modular and small-scale, designed to fit easily onto existing waste treatment and recycling sites, providing a scalable solution to recycle waste plastic anywhere in the world.
The RT7000 is a modular, mass-producible machine that can be easily installed. Bound to the core design, auxiliary components can easily be changed, compacted, or laid out in different orientations depending on each site's need. It aims to process approximately 1 ton of plastic per hour, 24 hours per day for the whole year except for the maintenance period. At 80% availability, the RT7000 can process 7000 tonnes of plastic per year (hence the name). This is sufficient to recycle the annual amount of plastic waste generated by circa 250,000 - 300,000 people; roughly the population managed by a suburban city council. For more population-dense areas, multiple thermo-cracking reactors or parallel reaction lines can be added to the design.
The development of RT7000 has come a long way. Research originally started in 2011 by Recycling Technologies Founder and CEO Adrian Griffiths, the concept was demonstrated and proven in 2013. The first RT700 (1/10 of the scale of RT 7000), was built soon after. This was upgraded in 2019 to the current version of the Beta Plant, which is used as the basis for design to the first commercial RT7000, to be installed in Binn Eco Part in Pert, Scotland. The commission is part of Project Beacon, where RT will collaborate with other organisations to create the world's first advanced Plastics Reprocessing Facility (a-PRF).
RT7000: The process
RT7000 employs thermal cracking to break down plastics into monomers and smaller molecules with different carbon chain lengths. There are currently three available products: Plaxx®50 (a wax), Plaxx®30 (a heavy oil), and Plaxx®8 (a medium to light oil) to satisfy the market. The three products are separated by a series of distillation columns. One thing that is particularly interesting about the RT7000 is that it collects its non-condensable gaseous product (light hydrocarbon chains) and feeds it back as an energy source to reduce the carbon footprint. Recycling Technologies is currently working with Kerax to produce different recycled wax types and with Neste to send Plaxx® back into the circular economy of plastic. The production of Plaxx® can be flexible based on market needs.
The RT7000 can take in plastic in a continuous feed flow. The input feed is plastic waste that cannot be processed by mechanical recycling: this mainly consists of laminates, black plastics, and multilayered packaging. Before entering the reactor, the feed goes through a NIR sorter to remove unwanted contaminants. The RT7000 is designed to tolerate limited amounts of PVC and
other chlorinated compounds.
Thanks to the RT7000, the recycling of soft plastic has become more affordable and viable. With the flexible design and simple installation, soft plastic can soon be recycled locally. We have now become possible of achieving net-zero plastic pollution.
Breaking into the recycling industry
After finishing her MSc in Aeronautics and Astronautics Engineering degree at MIT, Dale moved to the UK with her husband. Soon, she found differences between the UK and the US job markets; finding a job that aligns with her passion was a difficult task. In 2017, Dale met Adrian, where they had a conversation about Recycling Technologies. Growing up in a household with high environmental awareness, Dale is passionate about making positive contributions to the world. During the interview, Dale told us, `I will always give 200% when I do something.' This motivated her to join a company with passion, drive, and determination from the top. The core value and mission of Recycling Technologies deeply resonated with her. She joined the team in 2017 as a System and Mechanical Engineer.
Dale has experience in both research and industry and reflected on her experience. `When I studied at MIT, I did hardcore research. Usually, you just have to repeat the experiment again and again with different conditions. Research can be a long, slow process and you might have to work on your own.' Once Dale started her career at Recycling Technologies, things become a bit different. `To work in industry, you have to speed up your pace as the market can turn around quickly. In a start-up, individuals sometimes have to take up multiple roles.' Before taking up the Manufacturing Director position, Dale has had multiple roles with remits such as design, on-site management, plant construction, beta-plant testing, and modification. When appointed as manufacturing director, Dale had no formal management training. However, the company believes in growing people's potential, allowing them to learn gradually by completing the tasks and build a solid foundation for their careers.
Dale also offered some valuable suggestions about internships and graduate programs during the call. `Don't limit yourself in a fixed role.' is her first rule of thumb. Many tasks, such as monitoring, manufacturing, and cost reduction; they are not specific chemical engineering tasks but require chemical engineering mindsets. Dale started as a mechanical/aeronautical engineer; she now has experience in multiple disciplines, which helps her integrate her career profile. When going into industry, you have to be flexible to adapt to different needs from time to time. `Your degree is important, but the essential part of your degree is your skill to think, research, and solve problems; often, the breakthrough progress comes from fundamentals by operating the plant. Don't let your degree become a constraint or an upper limit when starting your career.' is Dale's second piece of advice. In terms of starting an internship or graduate program with Recycling Technologies, Dale suggested that students need to take the initiative to check the recruitment page. Internships and years in industry are the main ways in which Recycling Technologies recruit. Many interns are come back to join the company once graduating.
The time flies past during our conversation. After the call, I have redefined my degree's value and realised that the course material is not the only crucial part of the degree. What is more important is the courage, determination, and skills we have built during the course, to step out from the comfort zones, keep challenging ourselves and making a positive contribution to the future world.