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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“What we have been able to do [at our Almeria and Seville plants] is improve the quality of output from end-of-life plastic waste and adjust our technology in order to create the feedstock that chemical companies can process in their facilities to produce clean, recycled plastics. Each plant in Spain is operating 24/7, with stable and reliable yields,” he stresses.

Plastic Energy now is working to find the optimal feedstock to improve the new plant’s economics and energy efficiency.

“Although these are big challenges, the main challenge for us today is the policy environment because, despite higher recycling rates, chemical recycling is not properly recognized and incentivized,” notes Monreal.

The company also is talking with other chemical manufacturers about using TACOIL. “We are investigating opportunities in various markets, including the U.S. Based on our three years’ operational experience, we are ready to develop, build and operate multiple plants in different countries, with the goal to process over 200,000 tonnes [mt] of end-of-life plastic waste by the end of 2020,” he says.

Customer Trials Underway

Also in December, BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany, announced progress in plastic waste recycling via its ChemCycling program. In a pilot project at Ludwigshafen, the company manufactured its first trial products using pyrolysis oil made from chemically recycled plastic waste. The pyrolysis oil goes to a steam cracker (Figure 2).

The trial involves ten customers from different industries. Products manufactured so far include cheese packaging, refrigerator components and insulation panels. The customers currently are testing these to see how they compare with traditionally manufactured versions.

The pyrolysis oil itself was produced by Recenso, Remscheid, Germany. Its single-step catalytic tribochemical conversion (CTC) liquefaction technology combines catalytic and tribochemical mechanisms to crack the hydrocarbons in a variety of materials including agricultural waste biomass and mixed plastic waste. CTC doesn’t require high temperatures, pressures, or the addition of hydrogen into the process.

“As a next step, BASF plans to make the first products from the ChemCycling project commercially available. [However] …we currently cannot offer a detailed timeline due to prevailing technological and regulatory challenges that still need to be addressed,” notes a spokeswoman.

BASF currently is assessing various options and technologies, including which of two thermochemical processes — gasification or pyrolysis — is more suitable. “Neither is new, but they have not yet been used on a large scale to manufacture new chemicals. Availability and product specification of pyrolysis oil in the market need to be established. That is why we are currently investigating which process can best be scaled up to an industrial scale,” she says.

Another issue is whether the use of pyrolysis oil or syngas from plastic waste can overcome some regulatory ambiguities. For example, current EU legislation doesn’t oppose this approach — not least because chemical recycling barely plays a role in today’s waste management landscape.

“Chemical recycling is not yet recognized as a process which contributes to fulfilling the plastic packaging waste recycling quotas, especially in Germany. We are optimistic that demonstrating technology, market demand and environmental benefits, we can provide good arguments why chemical recycling should be seen as a valuable addition to a circular economy, and should meet supportive legislative conditions,” adds the spokeswoman.

Bigger Pilot Plant

Meanwhile, OMV, Vienna, is ramping up development efforts. The company has been exploring the potential of used plastics with its ReOil technology since 2011, and started up its first test facility, with a capacity of about 5 kg/hr of used plastic, at its Schwechat refinery in 2013. Last year, it began operating a test facility with a plastic processing capacity of up to 100 kg/hr that can produce 100 L/hr of synthetic crude (Figure 3).

The ReOil processes involves feeding used plastics into a smelting facility and then adding a solvent (which is recovered after processing and reused). This creates a fluid viscous mass that enhances heat conductivity and eases breaking the plastic down via a thermal cracking process operating at over 300°C. The process yields a usable gas and a syncrude. The refinery can process both to make gasoline, diesel and a polymer material used in plastics manufacturing.

“Currently the focus of OMV is to learn from the ReOil pilot plant and to prepare the next scale-up step. We are still acquiring operating as well as maintenance experience with this plant. A key focus beside the technology scale-up development is to establish standard procedures, to verify them and to optimize them,” notes Thomas Gangl, senior vice president refining & petrochemicals.

A future scale-up could handle more than a third of Austria’s plastic waste, he believes, as long as it contains high levels of PE, PP and PS.

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