The push for plastic recycling by chemical and oil groups is facing a setback

The push by the world’s largest petrochemical and oil companies to recycle plastic as the industry’s ‘plan B’ is in question, after a historic United Nations agreement to broker a legally binding treaty to tackle pollution plastic.

Despite significant lobbying efforts to reduce the proposal to plastic waste management, the Treaty signed by 175 countries could impose equal responsibility on plastic manufacturers to limit their production.

By 2050, petrochemical production will account for nearly half of global oil demand growth, according to estimates by the International Energy Agency.

Industry needs solutions to plastic pollution that don’t force it to cut back on that production, as the world grapples with its addiction to oil and gas.

One area of ​​growth he had landed on was chemical or “advanced” recycling, a technology that turns plastic waste into raw materials, or oils and gases, which are then fed back into petrochemical production.

Less than 10 percent proximity 370mn tons of the plastic produced annually is recyclable. Yet demand for recycled plastic is growing as consumer goods companies come under pressure to reduce their environmental impact.

The world’s largest petrochemical companies, including Dow, Sabic and Chevron Phillips Chemical, have all formed partnerships with recycling start-ups.

In China, Zhejiang Petrochemical is investing nearly $29 billion in a built-in facility produce both fuels and plastics from the same complex, with support from oil major Saudi Aramco. Shell and ExxonMobil are also building their own units to recycle plastic waste.

European plastics producers are expected to increase their investment in chemical recycling by around €2.6 billion to €7.2 billion between 2025 and 2030, according to industry body Plastics Europe.

In the United States, the American Chemistry Council reports that more than $7.5 billion in investments in advanced recycling projects have been announced since 2017, with more to come.

Unlike the existing mechanical “chop and wash” method of recycling, the most common form of chemical recycling is pyrolysis, which uses intense heat to break down hard-to-recycle plastics such as polyolefins. They are found in plastic films, bottle caps, liquid containers and many other forms of household packaging.

While the industry markets this technology as a better alternative to traditional plastic recycling methods, scientists have concluded that pyrolysis is much more energy intensive.

The German BASF, the world’s leading chemical group, uses the process and has found that pyrolysis of polyethylene plastic produces 3.34 kg of carbon dioxide per kilogram, the equivalent of burning one liter of heating oil.

Putting the same amount of plastic in landfill emits 0.06 kg in comparison, although this does not solve the intractable problem of waste in soils and waterways.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released this month results that the majority of chemical recycling facilities in the United States release dangerous amounts of hazardous pollutants into communities and the environment.

Jason Hallett, professor of sustainable chemical technology at Imperial College London, calls pyrolytic recycling “a solution in search of a problem”.

“The energy required to perform the reprocessing is greater than the energy required to manufacture the [plastic] first,” he said. To limit carbon emissions in line with the global warming goals of the Paris climate agreement, it would be better to “bury the stuff”, according to Hallett.

Despite rising investment, the plastics chemical recycling industry is still far from reaching commercial scale, according to industry analysts.

Projects need a processing capacity of around 100,000 metric tons to make economic sense; right now it’s at a tenth of that level, according to the IHS Markit data group. It would have to wait “well after 2030” to become significant, said Anthony Palmer, vice president of chemistry consulting at IHS.

Proponents argue that over time the industry will usefully grow. “If scaled in a safe and circular way, these technologies can help add value to materials that currently have such low value that it’s not even worth picking, sorting or process them,” said Kate Daly, chief executive of investment firm Closed Loop Partners. and head of its Center for the Circular Economy.

Plastic Energy, a chemical recycling company based in the United Kingdom and partner of oil groups Total energies, ExxonMobil and Sabicis one of the few operators with commercially active factories.

He uses pyrolysis to create a patented liquid oil to sell to the petrochemical industry. Deals secured 145 million euros last November from investors to build more factories.

Video: Chemical recycling: the end of plastic waste?

“You can’t just look at energy consumption,” said Carlos Monreal, chief executive of Plastic Energy. “We are producing a product that has a much greater value and can be recycled as many times as you want into virgin quality plastic.”

Pyrolysis is dominant but it is not the only method of chemical recycling. French tech company Carbios uses an enzyme to trigger a process that breaks down PET, which is commonly used to make plastic bottles and polyester. It focuses particularly on mixed plastics and polyester fibers favored by fast-fashion brands that cannot be mechanically recycled.

Not all companies commit to guaranteeing that their materials will be used to make plastic again. Of the 75 chemical recycling companies reviewed by Closed Loop Partners, less than 30 produce raw materials for this purpose.

Others that operate commercially sell waxes, liquid petroleum and naphtha gas, used as petrochemical feedstocks or in transportation fuel. Daly of Closed Loop Partners said naphtha gas derived from plastic waste could lead to higher feedstock prices compared to virgin equivalents, thanks to growing demand for more sustainable feedstocks.

These companies may not be able to categorize themselves as recyclers for long. The Association of Plastic Recyclers, an international trade body, has called for definition chemical recycling to be limited to processes that result in the transformation of waste into new plastics, rather than into more oils and gases.

Last September, the United States Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was considering regulating pyrolysis and gasification facilities under the Clean Air Act.

Judith Enck, president of the nonprofit group Beyond Plastics and former EPA regional administrator, said the agency would have no choice but to regulate chemical recycling facilities as incinerators.” because that’s what they are.”

“Industry doesn’t want to reduce plastic production, so it needs to save time,” she said.

“I’m a little surprised that the chemical industry is putting all their eggs in this basket,” Enck added. “Because it’s a very wobbly basket.”

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