INSIGHT: Petchem/energy players best placed to capture circular economy opportunities

Author: Nigel Davis


LONDON (ICIS)--When are the world’s energy and chemical companies really going to start to apply longer-term thinking to plastics recycling and the circular economy?

The current focus, understandably, is on single use plastics, largely packaging materials. Producers are becoming more involved in the processing of plastic waste, the goal often being to recycle back to the monomer. Technically, advances are being made.

But beyond that, the companies that know how to manipulate molecules, effectively and efficiently, can be the ones that have great influence on and benefit the most within the circular economy.

Energy companies have a unique opportunity, says Paul Bjacek, a Principal Director at Accenture, due to their access to local recycled material, to their operational skills, their financial strength, infrastructure links and deep product knowledge.

Bjacek presented this chart in a paper given in late June at the Plastics Free World conference and expo in Frankfurt, Germany.

It contrasts the current integrated petrochemical model with a conceptual approach, which he calls “Scale Circular Integration”. Think along the lines of volumes of processed and unprocessed waste returning to an integrated refining and petrochemical site for sorting and cleaning before being re-used, potentially in a variety of ways.

Petrochemical and energy companies already operate on large production sites, integrated with storage and logistics, in places like the Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp area in northwest Europe, in Houston, Philadelphia and Shanghai.

We are talking here of experts in process engineering, investing at scale to apply resources to a different type of raw material. They are in a position to capitalise on existing infrastructure and logistics, focusing their manufacturing, research, marketing and sales skills on the problem of plastic waste.

Bjacek says that petrochemicals sites are ideal for incorporating recycling technology, especially chemical recycling, pyrolysis and gasification, where various durable (eg composites) and non-durable (eg packaging) plastics can be handled. They can help avoid the NIMBY (not in my back yard) mentality that could restrict much more effective plastics recycling at many levels

For the refiner/petrochemical producer, there will be byproduct streams that can be used on-site as polymer raw materials, other chemicals or as a fuel or fuel blend.

Accenture sees new technologies and software being used to sort waste. Machine learning and AI (artificial intelligence) can be applied to scale-up these processes.

The technology is mostly there, the biggest hurdle may be the supply chain. Strong collaboration will be needed, especially between integrated petrochemical companies, waste handling companies and government.

And the approach requires refiners, petrochemical producers and plastics makers to think differently.

Bjacek stresses that producers should look for longer-term problems to address instead of just focusing on single-use plastics and the now. This probably means closer cooperation with other sectors of industry.

Wind turbine blades made from composite material, for instance, currently are being recycled through cement co-processing while alternative technologies such as mechanical recycling, solvolysis and pyrolysis are being developed.

Co-processing with cement provides a filler for the cement as well as fuel and can reduce CO2 output from the cement making process if the proportion of filler is high by as much as 16%.

Other waste stream with potential include single use plastics and textiles.

And the use of plastics in automobiles increases so the recycling of mixed waste streams becomes important. This puts further emphasis on understanding – and possibly becoming involved with – the ways in which multiple polymer waste streams, including plastics, rubber and composites will in future will, in future, be handled.

By Nigel Davis