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CERAWeek: Chemical recycling of plastics scaling quickly: execs

03 March 2021

The chemical recycling of plastics, also known as molecular or advanced recycling, is scaling quickly, according to Bob Patel, CEO of LyondellBasell, and Jim Fitterling, chairman and CEO of Dow. Both were speaking 2 March at the CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference.

Chemical recycling does not require the degree of sorting required by mechanical recycling, noted Patel, and it yields virgin resin completely identical to resins produced from traditional petrochemical feedstocks.

"With molecular recycling, you can take mixed plastic waste, convert it back to feedstock, and then put it back in the front end of the cracker [to make olefins] and then polyethylene or polypropylene," he said.

Patel said chemical recycling has the additional advantage of being on a much larger scale than mechanical recycling. "I think we're probably three to five years way from being at the scale that our industry is used to," he said. "I think it has to be some form of pyrolysis, and then it's a matter of how do you scale that up and manage any sort of environmental impacts from the pyrolysis process itself." Pyrolysis is the thermal degradation of plastic waste at different temperatures.

Fitterling noted that many pilot operations are underway. "Everybody is learning how to deal with this new raw material supply and how to manage it through existing assets, and I think we're making great progress," he said. "We're also getting good traction on the methodology for how to account for it and make sure you can prove that it's sustainable, and that it's an auditable, traceable closed loop."

However, closing the loop is not a purely technological problem. "I think a great way to think about it is, you're trying to create an entire ecosystem," said Fitterling. "We talk a lot of times about policies around circularity at a very high level, maybe a national or global level, but in reality the waste issues are very local, and so you have to deal with the local consumer and sorting out waste plastics, making sure they don't go to a landfill in the first place, and getting them to a recycling facility."

A fundamental challenge is that the cost of recycling is greater than business as usual, Fitterling said. "But policies and that whole system can help close that loop by creating an incentive that brings private investment in, that creates jobs for the local community, and that creates a way for that material to get back in," he said, adding: "Because we've changed the equation … from just being low cost to trying to reduce waste and get the carbon footprint down, and that's a different objective."

Original reporting by Chemical Week.

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