How Industry Tackles Plastics Plague

Developments aim to turn vast amounts of discarded material into feedstocks

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Mid-January saw what promises to be a significant move in the global push to tackle the problem of plastic waste. Thirty global companies involved in all aspects of the plastics value chain, from chemical and plastic manufacturers to consumer goods companies, retailers and waste management firms launched the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW). The AEPW counts companies such as BASF, Dow, LyondellBasell, Procter & Gamble, Sasol and Shell among its members. It plans to invest $1.5 billion over the next five years to develop and bring to scale technologies and strategies that will help minimize and manage plastic waste and promote a circular economy, i.e., using waste and end-of-life materials to lessen input of fresh feeds and energy.

Meanwhile, Pathway21, launched in 2017, has developed a cloud-based materials marketplace concept to foster materials reuse around the world. Participants — more than 1,000 already take part in the organization’s national and regional materials marketplaces — sign up and provide information about reusable materials and services they want to trade, sell or purchase. The marketplace actively analyzes materials desired and available, and sends participants curated matches. Joining materials marketplaces and listing and searching for material is free; a participant only pays a fee based on the value of a transaction once it’s completed.

Regional initiatives also are underway, notably in the European Union (EU). Its “Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy,” adopted in January 2018 (see, “Europe Eyes Plastic Recycling Efforts”), sets ambitious objectives for recycling of plastics and reuse of plastic packaging that currently accounts for 27 million mt/yr of post-consumer plastic waste generated in member states. For example, the goal is to recycle 55% of plastic packaging by 2030.

The strategy provided a timely spur to technology developers keen to recycle this waste and reuse it as a raw material in chemical processes. The result has been a rash of announcements by companies including SABIC, BASF, OMV and Neste about investments in these technologies.

Upgrading Project

In December, SABIC, Sittard, the Netherlands, announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with plastics recycling specialist Plastic Energy, London, to build a plant for the supply of feedstock to support SABIC’s petrochemical operations in Europe. The facility — expected to begin commercial production in 2021 — will be the first commercial one in the Netherlands to refine and upgrade Plastic Energy’s TACOIL feedstock.

The U.K. company has developed a thermal anaerobic conversion (TAC) process to produce TACOIL from raw, end-of-life or contaminated plastic waste. The feed material undergoes mechanical pre-treatment to remove unusable components such as metals and heavier plastics, leaving behind the usable portion — low density polyethylene (LDPE), high density polyethylene (HDPE), polystyrene (PS) and polypropylene (PP). The usable waste then is heated in the absence of oxygen until it melts and the polymer molecules break down to form a rich saturated vapor. After removal of non-condensable gases, the condensable gases produced during the process are converted to hydrocarbon products; atmospheric distillation columns split the hydrocarbon vapor into raw diesel, light oil and synthetic gas fractions. The non-condensable gases are burned to provide energy for the process.

While not revealing the scale of SABIC’s investment in the upgrading plant, Frank Kuijpers, general manager corporate sustainability at SABIC, says the facility probably would supply about 15,000 mt/yr of upgraded pyrolysis oil suitable for use at the naphtha crackers at its Geleen site (Figure 1).

“The liquid resulting from the mixed plastic waste conversion process cannot be directly processed in SABIC’s crackers and therefore must be upgraded in the new unit that will upgrade the pyrolysis oil, bringing it into the specification limits of our naphtha cracker,” Kuijpers explains.

“The unit will process low-end, mixed plastic waste that is expected to come from the Netherlands and which would otherwise be incinerated,” he adds.

The TACOIL process appealed because it already has been successfully commercialized and can handle a wide range of plastics that otherwise would be very hard to recycle by conventional processes, notes Kuijpers.

Once the facility starts up, SABIC’s plan is to work on the engineering required for scaleup of the pre-treatment technology, develop a strong market demand for its own certified circular polymers and — if these efforts pan out — scale up production at the new plant.

Plastic Energy CEO Carlos Monreal says SABIC’s interest in the technology stems from three factors: three years of experience of managing the TACOIL process through the full value chain; knowledge gained from two commercial plants already in operation in southern Spain — especially in terms of plant modularity and technology scalability; and the product quality.

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