In its latest sustainability report, LyondellBasell Industries said that "plastics make modern society possible." But plastics are also a huge source of controversy and pollution. Sustainable Plastics talked with Jim Seward, senior vice president of research and development, technology and sustainability at LyondellBasell, about the company's efforts to address this issue and its ambitions for a circular economy for plastics.
Q: One of the more exciting announcements from LyondellBasell this year was the startup of the company's small-scale chemical recycling pilot plant, utilizing its MoReTec technology in Ferrara, Italy. Can you tell me more about it?
Seward: We're already very active in mechanical recycling and now we are also developing our MoReTec technology, which fits into a suite of what you might refer to as an advanced recycling technology. It's in the same family as a number of chemical recycling processes; specifically, what we're trying to do is to find ways to turn used, post-consumer plastic back into chemicals. And in our case, we particularly want to turn it back into feedstocks and raw materials, which we can then feed back into our crackers to be able to make more products — primarily plastics — out of.
Q: Specifically, your own crackers?
Seward: Yes. At the moment, we are targeting cracker feedstock, to try to make that circular. Also, I should say, this is a technology we are developing, so it is not commercial today. There are already technologies out there that turn waste plastics into a number of different products, the most basic being energy and fuels. There are also efforts in different parts of the industry, so not just us, to try to really create that circularity and move up the value chain from fuel into chemicals. We are part of that play.
Q: Why did you decide to develop your own technology?
Seward: We felt it would be valuable to do so because we see a number of gaps in this space that needed to be filled for this to be a scalable solution that could really benefit us all. We have a strong heritage and competence in process: chemical process, polymer process, catalysis —– and that's really what has defined us as a company. We are one of the leading players in polymer technology in the world.
When we were looking at this area of advanced recycling and circularity, we saw a number of challenges or issues that really be needed to be addressed. One was the question of scale: Advanced recycling is happening today, but in quite small units handling 1-5 kilotonnes a year, perhaps up to 20 kilotonnes, in some cases. We see an opportunity to get bigger and this will require technology to be developed.
Secondly, we are looking to achieve circularity, essentially by creating a purer, high-value output product. In other words, this would be achieved by moving away from fuel and into lighter hydrocarbons that can be used for the chemical stream rather than the fuel stream.
Q: What is the technology you are using? Is it pyrolysis?
Seward: Essentially, we are using a pyrolysis-based technology, but it is a catalyzed pyrolysis-based technology. Traditional pyrolysis technologies are not catalyzed, which means that you don't have that selectivity of the reaction. A catalyst improves reaction selectivity; it can direct a reaction to yield a particular product.
Q: How energy-intensive is chemical recycling and, in that light, how sustainable? And what about the expense?
Seward: The scale that we are trying to develop with our advanced recycling technology will mean it will have an improved life cycle CO2 footprint vs. some of these smaller units on a unit basis. We are planning much bigger units: We're aiming at 100 kT/pa and maybe even more.
We are also aware that part of the solution will involve demonstrating the CO2 impact of our technology. We think that everything is headed in the same direction: If you can create selectivity, if you can create scale, then it's likely you will also create an improved CO2 footprint, because you're bringing the temperatures down in the reaction.
Q: Is it expensive?
Seward: Again, scale will speak to that. What we modeled and what our targets are is that it will be competitive with current systems in Europe. Europe has a lot of naphtha-cracking, for example, which is something we do quite a lot of as well, actually, and we believe it will be in that ballpark. The technology is still in development, so we have to see where that lands, but we recognize that it can't be very expensive or it's not going to work.
It has to work economically as well as environmentally, and we think that it will.
Q: What about the product feedstock: Can it go into cracker together with conventional feedstock?
Seward: Initially, we are working on the assumption that we'll be able — and we'll need to be able — to run both streams, in the same way as the energy mix at our energy stations. Certainly with crackers being quite large, initially we wouldn't switch from one day to the next. The transition will be quite gradual. But as we grow, we will obviously back out more and more of the traditional naphtha.
Q: Does this mean you will be adopting a mass balance approach?
Seward: Exactly. I think that the whole of this area of advanced recycling relies very much on extremely clear rules of the game around mass balance. I think that mass balance is a really important concept which applies in very many other parts of industries. I think it definitely has a place here, and everybody needs to be very transparent about that.
You'll need to certify, but I think it's definitely possible. There are many models out there already where mass balance is being used very effectively, but it is essential to have very clear and transparent rules of the game.
Q: You are currently at pilot scale. When do you think you can scale this? How is the project going?
Seward: In broad terms, we want to go to industrial scale — let's say, operational — towards the middle of the decade. And then assuming that goes well, we would have a platform that would allow us to continue to go further and build more units thereafter.
We were very happy with a very smooth startup of the pilot unit. That was important, and that's gone well. We will continue to work and invest there; it's not a little lab thing.
This is an industrial unit. It's running safely — obviously very important point — I'm incredibly impressed at what we've done in Ferrara, in the middle of COVID. We've managed to get this thing built, started and running.
Q: Looking at sustainability in general, when did LyondellBasell as a company really start to formulate its goals in that direction?
Seward: It's quite recent. We made a very conscious decision two or three years ago when we recognized that sustainability needed to become a core of our strategic business development and not a compliance issue. Our CEO Bob Patel has really been leading in this, and we've gone very fast. Looking at the wider area of sustainability, I recognize that LyondellBasell is not as developed a company as some others are in all areas. As I say: we really made this strategic shift over the past two to three years. However, I would argue that in circularity, we are well up to speed. Circularity is one of the areas that we're really, really focusing on.
Q: Do you mean the recycling projects LyondellBasell is involved in?
Seward: Well, thinking about circularity, our first big move was to create a joint venture with Suez, one of the largest waste management companies around. It is a joint venture specifically around mechanical recycling, because at that point we decided we actually wanted to be in the mechanical recycling business. It was important for us to do this with a waste company. We believe that the sharing of knowledge and the combination of our expertise has positioned us well. We have the polymer technology and market access, while Suez really understands what they do. Bringing those things together has been incredibly powerful and that was our first big step.
We've invested and expanded in terms of that joint venture and we see that as a platform. We aim to become bigger in mechanical recycling and that is something you'll see us — hopefully not too far in the distant future — talk about more.
Q: Next to advanced recycling?
Seward: Advanced recycling and mechanical recycling are really complementary. I think that in areas with access to well-sorted waste streams, mechanical recycling is a great option.
We are not backing away from mechanical recycling. Quite the opposite: We see advanced recycling as playing an important role in areas where mechanical recycling is very challenged — particularly with mixed waste, multilayer films, the kind of waste which is quite difficult to recycle mechanically, at least in our model of mechanical recycling.
Our model of mechanical recycling is to create mechanically recycled polymers that are as good as virgin polymers and have higher selling prices. It's really a value-based model.
That requires polymer expertise and access to very good waste streams. It means we spend quite a lot of time with Suez, working out a waste strategy: which collection and sorting centers are a good fit with what we are trying to do, also from a market point of view.
It's going really well; that business model has survived COVID-19, by which I mean that it has survived an oil crash. Generally speaking, recycling is quite challenged in that kind of environment.
Q: Regarding circularity, LyondellBasell is also looking at renewable feedstocks, among others, via a collaboration with Neste. Why Neste?
Seward: Neste has a very impressive business in terms of looking at nonfossil renewable feedstocks — generally from post-consumer oils, but also from other sources. They are a natural partner for us in terms of what we are trying to do. We've run Neste's nonfossil feedstocks through our cracker in Germany at our biggest site in Europe, exactly as we talked about earlier, using the mass balance approach, and we see that as a third leg. For us, plastic circularity is mechanical recycling, and we're very invested there. It is MoReTec, or advanced recycling, and it is renewable feedstocks, through partnerships with companies such as Neste.
Q: What about the internal processes at LyondellBasell? How do you approach sustainability in your own processes?
Seward: One thing we did when starting on this journey, which I think many companies have done, is that we've tried to be very specific in separating workstreams. Sustainability is quite broad. We have the circularity workstream or pillar, with its target of 2 million tonnes of recycled and renewable source-based polymers. It's global; it's top-down and bottom-up in terms of how we get there. But we also have four other workstreams or pillars, within which are these same kinds of programs. One is, for example, climate, where we're looking at the actions we can take internally in order to decarbonize our footprint. And that decarbonization takes a number of forms. We're looking at our big sites to determine the investments we can do in order to decrease our carbon footprint there.
And actually, there are a lot of options. You may have seen in the Netherlands last year, we announced the circular steam project in the Port of Rotterdam, which will reduce our carbon footprint at our site there by 140 thousand tonnes of CO2.
As a chemical company, we're also thinking about renewable energy. We are not a big energy company ourselves. So how do we play in that?
In other words, outside the circularity pillar, we also have a carbon reduction, or climate change pillar. And that is quite internally focused.
Another pillar — what we call sustainable products — is regarding how we can develop our product range in a more sustainable way. It's about looking at things like our value chain and integrated life cycle analysis in terms of how we position our products. And we've got another pillar on plastic waste; we are very invested in the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. So yes, we have circularity, and we also have other actions which we are focusing on to develop our operations in a sustainable way for today and tomorrow.
Q: Do you see plastics as being part of a sustainable future?
Seward: I fervently believe that plastics are not only part of, but are integral to, a sustainable future, for three core reasons. The first one is the benefits that plastics bring to a sustainable society. They are huge, in terms of the properties they bring, their ability to bring clean drinking water in pipes, lightweighting of vehicles, lightweighting of construction materials and medical usage. And food preservation: The world throws away 30 percent of the food it makes at the moment. That number would probably double without plastics.
The second is that while there are alternative materials that could do the job, they generally have a much worse carbon footprint. We can go back to metal parts in fuel tanks or copper in pipes if we want, but it won't benefit the environment in terms of the carbon footprint.
The huge issue for a sustainable future is obviously about plastic waste. It's not about plastic. And there I'm all in that this must be addressed.
We've got to get to a point where we as a society are not treating post-use plastic as waste but are treating post-use plastics as a raw material or feedstock or something else. So, I think the short answer to your question is that plastics by their nature have a sustainable future, but without tackling the issue of plastic waste, I understand the externality is, for some, perhaps a price not worth paying. That's why the plastics industry and certainly the whole value chain and maybe even the whole of society needs to recognize that we have to tackle that. I think just banning plastics out of existence is not the way to go, because you'll lose all those benefits — and society will lose.
Q: Is that why LyondellBasell has taken a leading role in the Alliance to End Plastic Waste?
Seward: Yes. The issue really is about plastic waste. What's great about the Alliance to End Plastic Waste is that it's a cross-value chain effort. It's an independent organization run by CEO Jacob Duer, who has a wide perspective, having worked within the UN. It's a group of like-minded companies and people that recognize that the models today to solve the plastic waste issue needs urgent attention. Particularly in some parts of the world, investment needs to happen, collaboration needs to happen, maybe in some cases legislation needs to happen, and that's OK. We have to change the system in terms of investment in waste management and new business models. The system today isn't working well.
Historically we've had these two different worlds — with the recycling world being quite fragmented and completely independent — and their ability to advocate has been quite low.
I think a company like Neste is a good example of a company that is starting to cross these borders and break down these boundaries between these different ecosystems, and I think that is actually an essential prerequisite of really finding scalable solutions.
We've been talking about Europe, but other places in the world are also facing considerable challenges.
I am encouraged about what is happening in China. The alliance is very focused on southeast Asia, where, following the rapid population urbanization, a key issue is the lack of infrastructure in waste management and in processing centers in cities.
And it is fascinating to watch the bigger companies across the value chain, like LyondellBasell, that understand the potential for change by becoming involved.