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Carbon and plastic waste: sorting workable solutions from the confusion and complexity

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By John Richardson on 07-Feb-2022

By John Richardson

THE GREAT NEWS, as I discussed last month, is that the more 100 countries, including the US, are thought to favour a treaty being proposed at the next UN Environment Assembly that would set targets for reducing plastic waste in the environment.

A date in has now been set for the meeting – 28 February until 2 March 2022 – with details of the event available here.

Let’s hope the meeting keeps in mind that the two challenges are separate – carbon production from making polymers and plastic waste.

One of the meeting’s proposed action points is for “both upstream and downstream policies that aim to keep plastics in the economy and out of the environment, reduce virgin plastic production and use, and decouple plastic production from the consumption of fossil resources.”

A great deal of tomorrow’s demand, beyond the frippery of say single-serve pouches and excessive use of packaging for aesthetic-only reasons, must be met because it will greatly add to the quality and quantity of human life.

In an ideal world, it would be great if we can break the link with fossil fuel feedstocks, provided a) the alternative sources of feedstocks reduce rather than add to carbon output and b) these alternative feedstocks can be sufficient in scale to meet tomorrow’s demand.

Think of all the hundreds of millions more people whom we all hope will emerge out of extreme poverty over the next 20 years.

Such an escape needs to involve access to modern-day healthcare which consumes a great deal of what may have to be made from single-use plastics, such as disposable hospital gowns and sheets.

Re-usable gowns and sheets? Sure, but what’s the carbon impact, versus the carbon impact of plastics, of sterilising gowns and sheets?

Could the modern healthcare system cope with the cost of the switch back to sterilising gowns and sheets, especially in the developing world where government budgets are a lot smaller than in the rich world?

The above chart is a reminder of the potential scale of polyethylene (PE) demand that needs to be met up until 2030 – and of course beyond that year as well -with most of the growth concentrated in China and the developing world.

If we break the link between fossil fuels and polymers production, as the UN suggests, how will we adequately supply PE to meet essential end-use requirements?

Managing carbon in the fossil fuel-based value chain

Let’s think next think about that great wealth enabler, the mobile phone, as just one of many other examples. What would the cost of distribution, and therefore the cost of the product itself, look like if the plastic that it comes wrapped in had to be collected and recycled?

As for the durable plastics that go into the phones themselves as we look beyond just PE, could their production in the necessary volumes become very difficult if there is a major legislative push to break the links between the production of plastics and fossil-fuel feedstocks?

Or am I entirely wrong? Very possibly, yes. But nobody really knows because we are in entirely uncharted territory as we try to reinvent today’s plastics or polymers value chains.

Because of the complexities and uncertainties, I believe we must not shy away from keeping everything on the table, every option, including continued use of fossil fuels to make plastics.

You can make an extremely compelling argument that extracting oil or gas out of the ground and refining or processing the stuff, turning it into polymers and moving it halfway around the world is very, very bad when it comes to carbon.

But what if carbon capture and storage can be made to work on a global scale, likely requiring effective global carbon tax and/or trading systems? Then the carbon could be sequestered from fossil-fuel based polymers production.

We seem to be some distance from this happening. But could this be made to happen with the right international legislation and enough tax concessions to encourage the necessary R&D? Maybe you will tell me we are already close to the technology solutions.

And what if the problem of “fugitive” or accidental methane emissions from natural gas-based polymers productions can be largely resolved? How would this impact the carbon balance of conventional polymer production processes? Last month, climate ministers from the world’s biggest methane producers met to discuss ways of resolving the problem.

What if we got rid of all bunker fuels from container ships with replacements by alternative fuels such as methanol, made from green or blue hydrogen, green or blue hydrogen themselves or biofuels?

Then let’s think about how to manage carbon in conventional refinery petrochemicals complexes. Are electric furnaces to power crackers, run on renewable energy alone, a scalable global alternative?

“Conventional, conventional crackers – we won’t see another one built [in North America]. It will be more expensive and involved,” said Luis Sierra, CEO of NOVA Chemicals, in an interview with ICIS at the American Chemistry Council (ACC) annual meeting in November.

As my ICIS colleague, Joe Chang, wrote in this excellent Insight article:

Dow plans to build the world’s first net-zero carbon emissions cracker in Fort Saskatchewan, Canada with construction potentially by late 2023 and start-up in 2027. The project will include around 1.65m tonnes/year of PE capacity in Phase 1 of the project.

The net-zero carbon cracker would capture off-gases and run them through an Auto-Thermal Reformer (ATR) to produce hydrogen and CO2. The hydrogen would be used to fuel the cracker furnaces and the CO2 captured and stored in the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line (ACTL).

Then Dow plans to retrofit the existing Fort Saskatchewan cracker with an ATR to fuel the furnaces with hydrogen. In these two phases, Dow would slash Scope 1 and 2 emissions at the site by 95%.

In the meantime, Dow and other companies such as BASF, Shell, SABIC and Linde are pouring R&D dollars into developing new technologies to decarbonise cracker operations, including electric cracking (e-cracking), the production and use of clean hydrogen (BASF’s methane pyrolysis) and ethane dehydrogenation (EDH).

Dow plans to allocate around $1bn/year in capital expenditures (capex) – about a third of its total capex budget – to decarbonisation through 2050.

Questions around carbon output from recycling

Some people view the carbon impact of chemicals recycling a concern when you look at the carbon intensity of the process itself.

But what about the broader envelope? How would a world-scale chemicals recycling industry – and by world-scale I mean sufficient to meet tomorrow’s demand – measure up against tomorrow’s world-scale fossil fuels industry?

Given the number of chemicals recycling plants that might have to be built to replace steam cracker and reformer-based polymer production, would all these plants extract or add to carbon output if we instead just better managed carbon in existing manufacturing processes?

We need to also consider the carbon output from collecting and sorting the huge volumes of plastic waste necessary to meet tomorrow’s demand via chemicals recycling.

I have heard it argued that the same wider carbon envelope assessment needs to be applied to mechanical recycling.

The technologies themselves are thought to be carbon winners.

But, again, what about the carbon impact of collecting and sorting all the plastic rubbish necessary for mechanical recycling to play a major role in meeting future polymers demand?

Then, of course, there is the unconnected issue of whether mechanical recycling technologies can be made flexible enough to meet the wide range of end-use polymer applications, many of which, as I said, add to the quality and quantity of our modern-day levels.

In this above respect, chemicals recycling appears to offer more potential as you can break down plastic waste into, say, naphtha that can then be used to make any grade of plastic.

Let’s assume that the mechanical and chemicals recycling industries cannot be scaled up to meet the huge scale of tomorrow’s demand. This doesn’t necessarily mean I am right in even suggesting that we should stick to fossil fuel-based production.

Perhaps it is simply impossible to reduce carbon output in the fossil fuel-based polymers industry by enough to make the necessary contribution in the struggle against global warming. The technologies, processes and the regulatory framework may never be adequate.

Is the answer instead switching to bio-based feedstocks or plant material? But are these processes again scalable enough to meet tomorrow’s demand? What about the risk that we would be taking agricultural land away from essential food production?

What about the carbon emissions from the extra fertiliser production that could be required to supply big volumes of bio-based feedstocks? And, once again, what about the carbon cost of collecting and delivering bio-based feedstocks to polymer production sites versus alternative routes?

Green and blue hydrogen, which I mentioned earlier, seemed to be promising. You can, in theory, make many millions of tonnes of methanol from sustainable hydrogen, for instance. It might be possible to convert this methanol, via the methanol-to-olefins process, into lots of ethylene and propylene to make polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP).

But the industry is in its early stage and technology challenges need to be addressed. There are those who doubt whether they can be addressed while others inevitably disagree. This further underlines the complexity we confront.

Another aspect that needs to be addressed is the contribution that polymer end-use applications make in reducing greenhouse gas output.

Plastic films reduce the amount of food that goes bad. When food goes bad it emits methane. And, of course, plastic films contribute to food security.

Electric vehicles are heavily dependent on chemicals and polymers for their production. Apparently, a lot of PP is needed to make an electric vehicle.

But, hey, have I entirely missed the point? Quite possibly, yes. As I highlighted last December:

Where is the feedstock going to come from for new crackers and reformers? And indeed, where is the feedstock going to come from for all the existing crackers and reformers if oil demand collapses quicker than some people expect?

I made the case that the fall in the costs of renewable energy and increased supply made rapid growth of electrification of transport a no-brainer.

The fossil fuels feedstock necessary to make polymers in the right future volumes might disappear as refineries shut down. In other words, the UN might not have to worry about breaking the link between fossil fuels and virgin plastics production, as the market will do the job for the UN.

Or will enough refineries still be running into 20 years’ time to meet polymers demand?

Let us look at this from another angle. Might it be the case that we simply have to keep a certain number of refineries operating, which focus more heavily on providing feedstocks for petrochemicals, in order to meet demand?

Conclusion: “Confused? You won’t be”

Note that nothing in this post has so far addressed the issue of plastic waste, the subject of the UN meeting in March.

So here goes. I maintain that the problem of too much plastic waste in the environment can only be fixed if we provide adequate rubbish collection systems for the 3bn people who lack such systems. Some 2bn people are said to have no rubbish collection at all, so they have no choice but to leave rubbish in the open environment.

Most of these people live in the developing world where polymers demand is set to boom over the next 20 years. Go figure. Unless we solve rubbish collection, the amount of plastic rubbish in the oceans can only increase

I hope the UN meeting in March therefore produces a good global agreement on limiting plastic waste in the environment, which I’ve been calling for since last year. Then we could see the regulations and financial incentives necessary for adequate rubbish collection systems.

The UN mustn’t be distracted by carbon, as this is a separate issue.

“Confused? You won’t be” was a line in the opening credits in Soap, the fabulous 1977-1981 US comedy show that parodied soap operas.

This is how we need to start the next episode of our industry. We must own up to the complexity by being determined to see our way through the confusion.

And we must explain the complexity to all the stakeholders while working with everyone to find the right combination of answers.

We simply must get this done.