Almost 15 years ago Agilyx opened a pyrolysis plant that specialises in processing hard-to-recycle mixed plastics into high-quality synthetic crude oil. In April 2018, the Tigard, Oregon-based company delved into new territory that has the potential to revolutionise polystyrene (PS) recycling. Agilyx has started operating a circular chemical recycling system that de-polymerises PS to create a styrene monomer oil.

Agilyx processes all forms of PS, but it has earned the most attention for accepting expanded polystyrene (EPS), also called foam, into its recycling facilities. EPS presents a variety of recycling challenges, in part because of its low melting point and light weight – which often makes transport expensive and is rarely accepted in U.S. curbside recycling programmes. In fact, a growing number of U.S. municipalities have banned or are trying to ban foam products. In fact, foam is often considered a contaminant if it is included with other recyclable items and hence is mostly sent on to landfills.

Some EPS recycling operations do exist in the United States, but usually they densify or melt the foam to keep the material in its polymer form. The PS resin is then manufactured into new products such as picture frames, surfboards and synthetic lumber. However, few plants exist that turn EPS into a monomer oil, especially at the scale on which Agilyx operates. 

Another unique aspect of Agilyx’s monomer oil operation is that it accepts feedstocks at any contamination level, many of which other processors consider too “dirty” to handle. An American Chemistry Council (ACC) report notes that although contamination is a problem for other plastic recycling methods, “because depolymerisation breaks scrap plastics back into the basic building blocks for resin, that contamination is removed,” which makes the resulting product “free from impurities, and possessing virgin resin-like properties.”

Depolymerisation thus allows for the recovery of “resin that would otherwise generally not be recovered,” ACC reports.

Agilyx’s main feedstocks come from commercial or industrial suppliers, although it also accepts single-use postconsumer materials, such as used foam cups or food trays from schools. The company’s leaders believe they have perfected a “tightly disciplined” feedstock management protocol over the past five years, which ensures a high-quality and dependable product. Before agreeing to accept feedstock from a supplier, Agilyx employees characterise each batch of materials and add the characterisation to their predictive modelling capabilities. This way, they know the yield and contamination level of each polymer in advance, and can therefore modify the pyrolysis process to ensure a consistent output.

“The recipe and quality control processes dramatically impact the ability to make a product,” claims Joseph Vaillancourt, Agilyx’s CEO. “That’s the piece most people don’t appreciate […] We take in waste from 500 different companies,” which is then used to create a uniform monomer oil product that can be customised to each end-use customer’s specifications. The monomer oil then goes to a refiner who further processes the product into manufacturing-grade styrene, which is used to make new PS products. 

Agilyx processes 600,000 pounds of polystyrene each month, which yields 56,000 gallons of styrene monomer oil. In addition to the depolymerisation process creating very little material degradation, “we’re also doing it at a 70% lower carbon profile than using virgin resources,” explains Vaillancourt.

Initially, Agilyx had not intended to enter the materials processing market. The founder’s original business plan was to be a technology company that would sell pyrolysis systems to waste or petrochemical companies. However, they have encountered resistance on both sides of the equation: “Waste companies were not interested in becoming oil recycling companies. And we are too small for petrochemical companies, or they loved the idea but did not want to have to source material from the waste industry,” explains Vaillancourt. Therefore, Agilyx found its niche as a middle market player. “We have integrated vertically into securing our own waste,” he says. “We’re marrying two totally separate industries.”

Vaillancourt outlines how the company’s synthetic crude oil business took a hit several years ago when “commodity markets fell to the point where our initial platform was no longer financially viable.” That’s when Agilyx examined processing discrete polymers instead of mixed plastics and chose PS for its first monomer oil project. The company idled the synthetic fuel part of the business while developing the monomer oil processing system, but management intends to reintroduce synthetic fuels among their product offerings.

Altogether, Agilyx is working on the research and development of about 60 new pyrolysis projects, including some for which end-use customers approached the company so as to create specific products catered to their needs. Vaillancourt sees many opportunities for future business expansion by accepting other hard-to-recycle items besides foam, such as single-use plastic items that the U.S. government is increasingly regulating, including straws and packaging. 

In the immediate future, Agilyx is exploring opportunities with which to take suppliers’ segregated, homogeneous manufacturing scraps of different resins, and processing them into monomers; similarly to the current PS processing model. The Agilyx leaders like to “think about plastics as an already high-quality feedstock, even though it is ‘waste’ and there are contaminants,” says Vaillancourt, “plastics may not have a high value financially, but they are a high-value feedstock.” 

The value is projected to grow as the push to preserve natural resources intensifies. For example, when looking at all of the polymers that will be manufactured over the next 20 years, “if you capture all that plastic and convert it to either a chemical substrate or an oil, it’s equivalent to up to 200% of what the U.S. estimates its own in-ground oil reserves are today. It’s a massive opportunity… around $50 billion a year opportunity.” 

Agilyx employees are optimistic about the future and proud of their contributions to the circular economy and expanding viable plastics recycling markets. Vaillancourt highlights how providing new ways to recycle plastics and new end markets could help to change the public perception on plastics in general: “We are super excited about our flexibility and what we can achieve both in terms of the types of products we can produce and that we can perform fully circular recycling.”

He credits advances in technology and the years of researching and testing pyrolysis processes as significant contributions to Agilyx’s current success. “We’ve got a tremendous amount of years and capital invested in this,” explains Vaillancourt, and laughs while stating: “We’re an overnight success that took 15 years to get to where we are.”  




4R Sustainability, Conversion technology: a complement to plastic recycling