Chemical Recycling: Racing to Close the Loop
The EU’s Circular Economy Package Drives Companies to Share Know-how and Resources
In Europe, chemical recycling, also known as feedstock recycling, is the “buzz” phrase of the moment, thanks especially to the EU’s Circular Economy plans that passed all instances in 2018. The legislative package foresees more ambitious collection and recycling targets and is also aimed at sharply curb landfilling and incineration.
The European Commission’s new rules limit the landfilling of all municipal solid waste to 10% after 2035. For plastics packaging waste, a recycling rate of at least 50% is targeted by 2025 and 55% by 2030, compared with 41% in 2016. Longer lead times for countries still lagging behind have been granted, but many petrochemicals and plastics producers are eager to start working toward the goal, to be sure of meeting the ultimate deadlines.
Some upstream or midstream suppliers already have legacy processes they can tweak, but collaboration with smaller, more flexible players with technology of their own can speed up the time to market. Major companies such as Neste, OMV, Dow, BASF or SABIC are reaching out to specialized downstream partners to gain access to technology they can use in their European production facilities. Companies with recycling know-how have no problems finding suitors.
Basically, chemical recycling transforms plastics waste into feedstocks for new polymers that are claimed to have properties identical to virgin polymer and have the advantage of being cheaper. Some of the more sophisticated processes also get by with less feedstock. Undoubtedly one of the biggest benefits is finding a use for soiled or contaminated plastics — especially as Third World countries are now no longer accepting the First World’s dirty “laundry.”
Most chemical recycling techniques are not entirely new. BASF and OMV developed their own as far back as the mid-1990s, but for reasons of cost, the absence of urgent demand or the fact that waste stream management was less sophisticated shoved the formulas into a back drawer. Since early 2019, several industry players have announced new plans for chemical recycling, with some going into overdrive this autumn.
A plethora of projects is already in progress.
Porvoo, Finland-based refinery group Neste has emerged as one of the companies most actively pursuing chemical recycling processes. In 2018, the oil group began looking for partners to explore ways to use liquefied waste plastic as a raw material for future refining and petrochemicals production. Working toward the self-set goal of processing more than 1m t/y of waste plastics by 2030, in the space of less than a month this autumn it has sealed agreements with two new partners.
In late October, Neste announced it would link with German waste management company Remondis to develop a proprietary chemical recycling process. This collaboration combines the Finnish group’s know-how in oil refining and in processing low-quality waste with Remondis’s waste collecting and sorting capabilities.
The newest project, announced in early November, links Neste with Belgian family owned distributor and recycler Ravago. The rationale here is the Belgian company’s geographical reach and its expertise in mechanical plastics recycling, saxys Mercedes Alonso, Neste’s executive vice president, Renewable Polymers and Chemicals.
Both projects target building capacity to recycle 200,000 t/y of waste plastic by chemical recycling, though no timescale has been disclosed. The refiner has selected Düsseldorf, Germany, as its global hub for supplying the chemicals and plastics industries with recycled feedstock.
Neste’s technology liquefies waste plastic in a thermochemical process before converting it into a material similar to crude oil. Liquefied and pretreated, it can be used as a refinery raw material to make polymer grade feedstock, the group says.
The Frankfurt, Germany-based styrenics arm of the Ineos group recently revealed initial results of its ResolVe project to depolymerize polystyrene (PS) back to its monomer. The work was funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research with contributions from Ineos Manufacturing Deutschland in Cologne and developed in collaboration with external R&D partners.
Ineos Styrolution says its project team now has proof of concept of closed loop recycling, with findings showing PS to be one of the few polymers that can be successfully converted back into its specific monomer. A pilot plant is planned to prepare the groundwork for scale-up.
In July, the Ineos offshoot announced a pact with Belgian waste management company Indaver to drive chemical recycling forward in Europe. In late October, it sealed a partnership with food packaging group Sirap, a leading producer of XPS food packaging, to develop products based on chemically recycled PS.
In the meantime, Ineos Styrolution has also joined forces with US plastics and rubber producer Trinseo, the former styrenics arm of Dow Chemical, to advance the development of a commercial-scale chemical recycling plant in Europe. This would be based on a process developed by Agilyx and tested in North America.
BASF was at the forefront of an earlier search for chemical recycling techniques, in 1994 introducing a new multi-stage process that it at the time said could handle mixed polymers or soiled plastics wastes. Since then, any plans to use it have slumbered quietly in the drawer.
In October this year, the Ludwigshafen chemical major announced it would take a stake worth €20 million in Norway-based Quantafuel, which focuses on pyrolysis of mixed plastics waste and the subsequent purification of the resulting pyrolysis oil. The two companies plan to develop Quantafuel’ production process for purified hydrocarbon products, based on an integrated process of pyrolysis and purification.
Plans sketched by the German-Norwegian partnership also include building and jointly owning plants to produce hydrocarbons. By the end of this year, Quantafuel plans to start up its first commercial plant using the technology at Skive, Denmark.
Under the name MoReTec, Netherlands-headquartered, US-run olefins and polyolefins giant LyondellBasell has developed a molecular chemical recycling technology based around a proprietary catalyst in the pyrolysis process. The company recently disclosed plans to build a small-scale pilot facility at Ferrara, Italy, to advance the technology toward commercial-scale operation. The plant will trial a new process developed together with Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
Jim Seward, LyondellBasell’s senior vice president of research & development, technology and sustainability, says the group is studying a number of proprietary catalyst options. In the coming months while it builds the pilot unit, it will also focus on the interaction of various waste types on the molecular recycling process, catalyst selection and process conditions. The goal is to return plastics waste such as normally difficult to recycle multilayer films to their original molecular state so that they can be used to manufacture new products
Austrian olefins and polyolefinsls heavyweight Borealis and its major shareholder compatriot OMV are striving to leverage synergies in their joint value chain to drive chemical recycling. The companies said in May they were in the process of developing a roadmap for reaching circular economy targets.
OMV is currently engaged in scaling up the ReOil recycling facility at its Schwechat, Austria, refinery, which supplies feedstock to Borealis and other buyers. The ReOil pilot plant, fully integrated into the refinery, processes synthetic crude oil that can be used either as a feedstock for plastics or alternatively as fuel. One more scale-up step of the plant is planned before it reaches final industrial-scale capacity.
UK energy and chemicals giant BP announced in October it would invest $25 million in a pilot plant at Naperville, Illinois, USA, to test its BP Infinia enhanced chemical recycling technology for PET. Start-up of the pilot facility is planned for late 2020, and the group said it sees potential to develop multiple full-scale commercial plants worldwide.
The depolymerization process is claimed to be able to convert difficult-to-recycle PET waste into recycled feedstocks that can be used interchangeably with traditional hydrocarbon-based fuels. BP calculates that, if deployed at scale in several facilities, the technology could potentially prevent billions of PET bottles and trays from ending up in landfill or incinerators each year.
A UK based independent limited company with a large European presence, Plastic Energy has two plants in Spain, at Sevilla and Almería. In the Netherlands, the chemical recycling specialist now plans to build its first commercial facility to refine and upgrade Tacoil (TAC), a feedstock developed from its patented thermal anaerobic recycling technology for low-quality, mixed plastics waste. Start-up is planned for 2021.
In the Plastic Energy process, end-of-life, dirty and contaminated plastics waste is converted into usable feedstock. First, the plastics are melted in an oxygen-free environment and subsequently broken down into synthetic oils that it said can be refined and upgraded to produce feedstock for traditional petrochemical uses.
Saudi Arabian chemicals and plastics standard bearer SABIC, which also has a high European profile, has inked an agreement with Plastics Energy to use Tacoil as a feedstock for its PE and PP production facilities at Geleen in the Netherlands.
For its site at Terneuzen, the Netherlands, Dow has signed an agreement with Fuenix Ecogy to be supplied with pyrolysis oil derived from recycled plastics waste. The oil will be used as feedstock to feed polymer production.
French technology start-up Carbios uses enzymes to depolymerize PET packaging, recovering the raw materials PTA and MEG before separating and purifying them for use in other applications. In February, the company announced it had successfully produced the first PET bottles made completely through enzymatic recycling of plastic waste.
The company has secured several patents in Europe, Japan and USA for its proprietary process, which is claimed to be able to recycle complex plastics, including colored, opaque and multilayer products that contain a mix of PET and at least one other component, such as polyolefins, vinyl polymers, rubber, fibers, paper, aluminum, starch or wood.
Carbios has formed a consortium with several leading consumer product manufacturers, including Nestlé Waters, PepsiCo, L’Oreal and Suntory, to bring its recycling technology to market in the next four years.
In August, Kuala Lumpur-based oil and gas company Petronas signed a memorandum of understanding with Plastics Energy to jointly undertake a feasibility study for a plant in Malaysia that would produce chemically recycled feedstock from hard-to-recycle local waste, using the TAC process.
In the US, where more and more plastics production facilities are going on stream, thanks to cheap shale-derived feedstock, few companies without European operations as yet seem to be taking the chemical recycling route.
Kingsport, Tennessee-headquartered Eastman is an exception. In late October it announced the start-up of a commercial operation leveraging its carbon renewal technology, which breaks down plastics into molecular building blocks such as carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. The process is claimed to have a significantly improved carbon footprint compared to the use of fossil feedstocks.
The chemical group has modified the front end of its acetyls and cellulosics production processes to accept waste plastic and expects to use up to 50 million lbs. (close to 22,800 t) of the waste plastic in its carbon renewal technology operations in 2020. Projects are currently under way to “significantly” expand that volume.