Refiners weighing opportunities for circular polymer production (ERTC)

Zero to single-digit returns for European refiners compel development of revenue streams around low-carbon products.

Rene Gonzalez

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Article Summary

In addition to biofuels, hydrogen and other decarbonisation opportunities, the manufacture of circular polymers is pivotal to eliminating the nearly 300 million mtpy of plastic waste produced worldwide. The industry can leverage this waste to produce products for the circular economy.

Petrochemical demand is increasing, stimulating demand for polymers produced from waste plastics. Circular polymers help downstream processors’ participation in a sustainable industrial operation, while also providing margins opportunities for companies that have not necessarily considered producing polymers in the past, but nonetheless have the supporting infrastructure.

Large amounts of recycled plastics are required for circular plastics manufacturing to succeed, involving both mechanical and chemical recycling. Information available from Plastics Europe1 indicates its member companies are already planning to increase chemical recycling investment to 7.2 billion Euros in 2030, yielding 3.4 million mtpy of recycled plastics.

EU regulatory rulings2 on the use of recycled content in plastics packaging will help drive the market. Its uptake avoids GHG emitting incineration and plastic marine and land debris. Converting waste plastics to circular plastics seems like an undisputable win-win proposition considering the current demand for certain polymers like polypropylene. However, wide-scale commercialisation still needs to happen. 

Partnerships are developing in Europe between chemical producers and technology suppliers to commercialise advanced waste plastics recycling for polymer production. Together, Dow Chemical, Topsoe, and other contractors with specialised capabilities are moving forward with the design and engineering of a 10,000 ton per year market development unit (MDU).

The MDU project at Dow’s complex in Terneuzen, the Netherlands, will demonstrate the ability to efficiently reclaim waste plastic into circular polymers. Full commercialisation is expected soon. The MDU is using Topsoe’s PureStepTM chemical recycling technology3 to purify pyrolysis oil feedstock derived from waste plastics, yielding circular polypropylene and polyethylene.

Difficult-to-recycle plastics
Industrial-scale purification of circular feedstocks is needed to meet strong demand for targeted polymers, including polypropylene and polyethylene. These waste plastics are difficult to recycle, according to recent reports.4 A range of difficult-to-recycle plastics is under consideration as basic building blocks for new chemicals. One option is for offsite purification of the pyrolysis oil.

To increase pyrolysis oil feedstock production, the Fuenix Ecogy Group’s unit in Weert, the Netherlands, will be capable of processing 20,000 mtpy of post-consumer plastics into pyrolysis oil feedstock for Dow’s Terneuzen circular plastics operations. Dow has committed to offering at least 100,000 mtpy of recycled high-quality plastics sold in the EU by 2025, such as for packaging applications.

The Fuenix Ecogy® process5 cracks whatever polymers are in the plastic to a molecular level, essentially upcycling end-of-life plastics that would otherwise go to waste and instead creating high-quality raw material feedstock for process facilities. These facilities could include refineries with the necessary infrastructure, such as asset integration and scale.

Continuous recycling of waste plastics into circular polymers is a strategic objective for other major chemical manufacturers. For example, Chevron Phillips Chemical’s (CPC) circular polyethylene matches the performance and safety specifications of CPC’s virgin polymers. Compared to traditional recycling, advanced recycling is designed to operate with the capability to handle impurities, mixed polymers, etc.

Before 2027, ExxonMobil plans to open several advanced recycling plants worldwide in the Netherlands and elsewhere, with a total combined capacity of 500,000 mtpy. ExxonMobil’s other reported advanced recycling plans centre around a collaboration with London-based Plastic Energy, which operates two such plants in Spain.

Earlier this year, the two companies announced that Plastic Energy6 would build, own, and operate a plant adjacent to ExxonMobil’s petrochemical complex in Notre Dame de Gravenchon, France. Up to 25,000 mtpy of post-consumer mixed-plastic waste feedstock at the French plant will be recycled into raw materials by 2023, which ExxonMobil will then turn into certified circular polymers.

Polymers from refineries
Circular polymers from SABIC’s Trucircle portfolio7 are produced using advanced recycling, converting low-quality mixed and used plastic, otherwise destined for incineration or landfill, into pyrolysis oil.

Collaboration between SABIC and BP at the Gelsenkirchen production site facilitates the processing of pyrolysis oil as an alternative to traditional hydrocarbon feedstocks.

The pyrolysis oil is then processed through SABIC’s Gelsenkirchen polymer units to produce certified circular products with identical properties to virgin-based polymers. To stimulate the uptake of recycled content in plastics packaging, a plastic packaging tax is being introduced on plastics packaging manufactured or imported into the UK if it does not contain at least 30% recycled content.

Huge amounts of waste, both in Europe and globally, end up in natural environments, harming wildlife and biodiversity, with up to 80% of marine debris being plastic. Many of the globe’s refiners have noted that to increase margins in the biodiversity transition, they must increase the use of alternative feedstock in the shift towards greater petrochemical production.

Petrochemical shift
A growing number of refiners are turning to waste recycling technologies to provide sustainable feedstock while reducing their reliance on the exploration and production of fossil fuels. The consultancy McKinsey also highlighted this opportunity, suggesting this could represent a global profit pool of nearly €50 billion per year by 2030.

Elsewhere, Axens is teaming with downstream operators to process renewably sourced aromatics, primarily for recovery of high-purity bio-based paraxylene, which can help develop renewable chemicals from non-food biomass. Increased demand for substitutes of conventional petrochemical products, exposed to volatile crude oil prices, is likely to drive bio-based paraxylene market growth.

Widespread utilisation of bio-based paraxylene in various applications, such as in polyethylene terephthalate (PET), is likely to generate double-digit growth opportunities for the worldwide bio-based paraxylene market. Against this backdrop, the imminent closure of many European refineries may be avoided as these facilities play the role of first movers in the global circular economy.

This short article originally appeared in the 2022 ERTC Newspapers, which you can view HERE

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