Borealis to place PE, PP at heart of circularity, chem recycling still weak spot – exec

Jonathan Lopez


LINZ, Austria (ICIS)–Borealis’ main selling products – polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) – place it in a good position to deepen research and development (R&D) into recycling as global public alarm about plastic waste rises, an executive at the Austrian major said.

Maurits van Tol, head of innovation, technology and circular economy at Borealis, added that chemicals recycling’s low recoverable yields still make the technology unattractive, arguing that is a key field of study for its R&D department.

The executive also made a plea about Borealis’ commitment to circularity for moral reasons but also as a business case: unlike many other plastics, PE and PP are highly recyclable and deepening R&D into their recyclability will result in a profitable proposition, he said.

“Plastics is a wide range of products. Borealis is in the PE and PP businesses, which are very clean materials: you can molecularly engineer them from soft to hard, for instance. You don’t need softeners to make them soft, like with PVC [polyvinyl chloride] or other plastics. We can design molecules,” he said.

“With the catalyst technology that we have, you can design the molecules you want. Moreover, PE and PP have a very low carbon footprint, they can easily be recycled, and they facilitate keeping the energy in the system for a longer period.”

Van Tol said he is convinced that PE and PP will end up replacing a wide range of other plastics in the medium term because they are “better materials”, not only in terms of their performance but also in terms of their environmental impact.

“That [replacement process] is what we are aiming for,” he added.

Converting a polymer back into a monomer is the holy grail for the chemical recycling industry.

The nascent technologies to achieve that conversion are still pricey, but Van Tol added that, rather than price, it is the low yield achieved after the conversion that is putting off investment.

That would amount to a figure that can vary between a meagre 5% to 30% in the most optimistic of cases.

“We call it cascadation. With mechanical recycling you are able to keep some of the energy in the system for longer; in solvent recycling, you lose a bit more of energy; but then, when you go to chemical recycling, or converting some polymers back into feedstock, the yield is between 5% and 30%,” he said.

“With such a low yield, you lose so much of the intrinsic polymers that you end up trying to avoid the chemical recycling part as much as possible.”

More R&D into chemical recycling is needed. Van Tol mentioned the chemical recycling plant Borealis is mulling with its parent company OMV, the Austrian crude oil major, as an example of the company’s true commitment towards the circular economy.

OMV owns a 36% stake in Borealis. The remaining 64% is owned by Abu Dhabi’s investment fund Mubadala.

Commitments made to increase circularity by plastics producers around the world fall at times on deaf ears when it comes to global public opinion that has quickly turned against the material.

Van Tol was speaking on the sidelines of a pre-K event organised by Borealis in Linz, Austria, ahead of the major, three-yearly plastics fair K in October in Dusseldorf, Germany.

During the same event, Austrian producer of injection moulding machines Engel – for whom the polymers industry is a key end market – spoke of the current “plastics bashing” and how difficult it has become to be associated with the industry.

Van Tol (pictured) said he is aware – and shares at times – that great public concern.

Most polyolefins and polymers producers are trying to weather the storm by lobbying for plastics’ social benefits, arguing their use is only set to increase in coming decades as relentless urbanisation takes place across developing nations.

“But we want to make sure that people – consumers and governments – base their decisions on facts and figures. Independent organisations can make life cycle assessments [of projects started up by companies]. While the industry itself could do them, that would be preaching for our own people, and that’s not what we want,” he said.

The executive added that Borealis’ R&D spending, at $150m/year, is the largest among its polyolefins producing peers, employing 550 researches in Austria, Sweden and Finland.

“$150m is double than what our nearest competitors spend on R&D, like SABIC, LyondellBasell or INEOS,” he added.

According to SABIC’s annual report for 2018, its spending on “research and technology” totalled Saudi riyal (SR) 1.16bn ($309m), although the Saudi petrochemicals major did not specify how spending was used up for different activities at the department.

LyondellBasell reported R&D spending at $115m in 2018, with 55% of its spending on technology, also according to its annual report.

INEOS, also privately owned, said in its annual report for 2018 its expenses in R&D stood at €29.8m, an actual decrease from 2017’s €31.6m. It increased the number of employees at R&D however, from 280 to 360 researchers.

Transparency on accountancy matters. The Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) set up by major global plastics producers claims it is to invest up to $1.5bn within five years to help tackle plastic pollution.

However, the AEPW does not specify how much each company contributes towards its budget. In terms of openness to other stakeholders, the outgoing CEO at US’ chemicals trade group the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Cal Dooley, said in an interview with ICIS in March that the organisation was open to a wider membership.

However, no new members have been announced since.

Borealis is not part of the AEPW, and Van Tol would not give much away about the reasons why.

He said he could not comment on it, adding that Borealis had been “a frontrunner” with the Ellen McArthur Foundation – which campaigns to end plastic waste – as well as launching several programmes related to the issue.

Despite not being member of AEPW, Van Tol said that “different groups around the world” should work together to tackle the problem.

“We need to make people realise that plastics are a valuable raw material – we want to have it back. The governments also have a responsibility, because waste management infrastructure in many countries is not good,” he said.

“As a society, we have a responsibility to tackle the problem. No company, government, or NGO can fix it on its own. And Borealis wants to make clear this commitment. We don’t want any green washing: we simply need to make people aware that we want the plastics back, because there is a value in them.”

Public awareness is most needed in Asia, the region that according to the Ellen McArthur Foundation is the biggest contributor to ocean waste.

To that aim, involving the general public in collecting plastic waste in exchange for money is an idea that Borealis is testing in an Indonesian city.

The idea is also being mulled by the AEPW as a solution to plastic waste in some of the most polluted large rivers, most of them in Asia.

“We can bring in circularity that way. It works well because it is very tangible – this plan is a feasible proposition. Money makes the world go around and that means people need to get some money from sorting plastics out, from collecting them,” said Van Tol.

“The high dream is to proliferate that model as rapidly as possible to more cities and countries. What is clear is that society will need plastics in coming decades. The alternatives – glass or metal – are simply not sustainable.”

($1 = SR3.75)

Picture sources: Westend61/REX/Shutterstock and Borealis

Interview article by Jonathan Lopez 


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