Petrochemical manufacturers are commonly known as creators of the building blocks for plastic. But increasingly, they're making headlines for reversing that process — turning used plastic products back into their original building-block monomers — and advancing other recycling solutions critical to addressing concerns about plastic waste.
Plastic products are vital to our lives, enabling everything from food preservation, to sanitation in health care, to technology and virtual connection, to energy innovations like solar panels and wind turbines. There is no doubt that modern life is improved by plastics — yet each year, consumers around the world throw away approximately 150 million tons of it, roughly half of all the plastic produced globally, according to researchers. Dealing with that waste has become a top priority not only for the plastics industry, but also its main supplier, the petrochemical industry.
Many in the petrochemical sector — including some of the leading chemists, material scientists and engineers in the world — are applying their ingenuity to the problem by turning waste into valuable new resources with promising results:
• Tennessee-based Eastman Chemical announced its breakthrough carbon renewal technology in April on the heels of its advanced circular recycling technology announcement in March. This newest technology will help to divert waste from landfills by recycling complex plastics, including mixed- and non-polyester plastics, back to basic molecular components for new product manufacturing ranging from textiles to health care products.
• Americas Styrenics, a Chevron Phillips Chemical Co./Trinseo joint venture along with Agilyx, is working on an effort to convert waste polystyrene — a resin not as easy to mechanically recycle — back into the styrene monomer, which can then be used to make new PS called PolyUsable.
• Saudi Basic Industries Corp. last June became the first petrochemical company to announce plans to invest in a project to convert mixed plastic waste — which includes difficult-to-recycle combined products like bottles, film and plastic film — into original feedstock. That project, with a facility set to open in 2021, is based in the Netherlands.
• LyondellBasell partnered last year with Suez, a leader in advanced mechanical recycling, to form quality circular polymers, which is developing recycled resins to compete in quality and price with resins from virgin material. It is also partnering with Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany to test chemical recycling.
One of the big misunderstandings about plastics recycling is that any combination of plastics can be melted down together and reformed into something else. That's just not the case. Different types of plastics require different recycling processes, and in some cases, complex structures engineered to meet demanding performance standards renders these compositions difficult to recycle. Another challenge is collecting a large volume of high-quality material that is clean and pure enough for secondary use — difficult in many parts of the country where recycling is comingled. Food residue, glues, glass shards or even a smattering of the wrong types of plastics can contaminate resin.
Petrochemical manufacturers — who transform oil and natural gas into monomers, polymers and plastic resins — are pioneering chemical recycling and breaking new ground in mechanical recycling, turning what would otherwise be plastic waste into valuable resources. As an answer to this challenge, petrochemical manufacturers, including some listed above, are advancing chemical recycling — a process wherein plastic is recycled into fuel or stripped down to its fundamental building blocks (monomers) and then refashioned into polymers in the form of pellets. This chemical recycling process can be repeated over and over without jeopardizing strength and quality.
Chemical recycling presents a world with unlimited reuse opportunities. Whether it be liquid fuel, recycled clothing or food-grade packaging, it is possible for plastic to become something entirely new. That is why chemical recycling is seen as the critical technology needed to unlock a truly circular economy.
Advances in chemical and mechanical recycling are maximizing value in products that would likely be destined for waste. Both recycling technologies will play a pivotal role in the global response to plastic waste, and in years to come, could flip the script for plastic waste entirely. The petrochemical industry, and the full force of its engineering expertise and creative problem-solving, are committed to achieving those breakthroughs and ensuring a more sustainable future.