Most chemical company leaders, especially those with an interest in polymers for packaging, are now keenly aware of the need to make long-term strategic decisions that will improve their performance relating to the circular economy.
Pressure is being felt from consumers and regulators who are pushing hard for a more sustainable approach to the use of finite resources. Targets for polymer recyclability as well as recycling cannot be ignored, with the EU calling for all plastic packaging to be recyclable by 2030. In the US too, circular economy and sustainability are now among the most important trends driving the industry, according to delegates at the recent National Plastics Exposition.
Most chemical companies already put sustainability near or at the top of their research and development agenda for new product development. But for new products and the existing portfolio one of the big questions facing executives seeking circularity is exactly what approach to take.
Many polymers are already technically recyclable but rates of recycling are very low, even for the most advanced sectors such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
A good first step is to work with downstream convertors, brand owners and retailers to work out how packaging, for example, can be better designed for recyclability. Can polymer producers find an alternative to the film/foil layers in crisp packets which make them currently impossible to separate and recycle mechanically?
Another area to examine is getting involved in the recovery and recycling of plastic waste. Lobbying governments to legislate for better collection and sorting facilities should be an objective. There is a currently a huge variation in the quality and consistency of these facilities even between towns and cities in the same region. That needs to change; otherwise the best efforts of the polymers sector to improve performance will be stymied when the packaging reaches end of life.
Chemical companies can drive circularity by investing in the waste collection and recycling sector. There are already some great examples of this happening. For example, LyondellBasell in March 2018 started up a 50/50 joint venture known as Quality Circular Polymers with waste management firm SUEZ for plastics recycling.
This group mechanically recycles polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) with capacity expected to reach 100,000 tonnes/year by 2020. JV partner Suez aims to increase plastic recycling capacity by 50% to 600,000 tonnes/year by 2020.
Chemical, rather than mechanical, recycling is also now an option for investment.
This week two announcements show how quickly this sector is moving.
In the UK, Recycling Technologies took a major step towards commercialising its proposition which involves producing small-scale units which crack plastic from municipal waste into naphtha, waxes and other cuts (see pages 24-27).
The group has signed an offtake deal worth £50m with traders InterChem which will sell all the naphtha from 12 units planned for construction over the next five years. There is a separate £15m agreement with UK wax manufacturers Kerax for the wax cut.
Recycling Technologies is looking for investment from chemical industry majors as it aims to scale up to producing 200 units per year, each capable of processing 7,000 tonnes/year of waste plastic. This would add 1.4m tonnes/year of plastic recycling capacity annually.
Investing in a company like this does not fit the current business model for most petrochemical companies so would require a shift in thinking.
The units are small-scale and located near municipal waste sites. The naphtha offtake would have to be transported to existing production sites unless small-scale polymer production could become an option.
Recycling Technologies says the units will pay for themselves within three years.
And in the US Fulcrum BioEnergy has broken ground on a municipal waste-to-fuels plant in Nevada. This plant converts household garbage into synthesis gas (syngas), which can be made into naphtha or fuels. Fulcrum’s process technology relies on a steam reforming gasifier to convert the waste into synthesis gas (syngas). Operations should start in the first quarter of 2020, and it will convert 175,000 tons of household garbage into more than 10.5m gal/year (40m litres/year) of fuel.