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Full circle: Advanced recycling closes the plastics loop

  • Featuring
  • Mark Thomas
  • Commodity
  • Petrochemicals
  • Topic
  • Environment and Sustainability Recycled Plastics

Polymer producers are racing to establish recycling infrastructure and ramp up supplies of waste plastic for use as feedstock as they transition toward their circularity, sustainability, and decarbonization goals.

Chemical, or advanced, recycling of mixed waste plastics, complemented by mechanical recycling, is seen by many of the leading chemical companies as key to achieving the industrial-scale capacity required for recyclate supplies to close the plastics loop.

Locations where waste-collection and plastics-recycling infrastructure are already in place or in the process of being built, ensuring sufficient and reliable supply of feedstock, have been a primary factor for the initial wave of commercial-scale, advanced-recycling projects now being developed or recently announced.

Dow and Eastman have each unveiled large-scale plans in Germany, France, and the US for chemical - and mechanical - recycling projects, expanding on collaborations with existing value-chain partners.

Eastman plans to invest up to $1 billion in the phased development of a molecular recycling plant and innovation hub at Port-Jérôme, France, which it expects to be operational by 2025. The facility will use Eastman's methanolysis polyester renewal technology to recycle up to 160,000 mt/year of waste plastics into polyethylene terephthalate.

The same technology is planned for use at a plastics recycling facility being developed at Kingsport, Tennessee, where Eastman is investing $250 million in a plant that will have capacity to process more than 100,000 mt/year of waste plastics. The facility is scheduled for mechanical completion by the end of this year.

Ambitious global plans, meanwhile, have been rolled out by Dow, targeting up to 600,000 mt/year of advanced recycling capacity by 2030 with partner Mura Technology in London, UK. The companies have committed to build five 120,000-metric tons/year facilities across the US and Europe.

Dow is also separately building a 26,000-mt/year recycling facility at Dallas, Texas, with partner Atlanta, Georgia-based Nexus Circular. The plant will use Nexus's proprietary pyrolysis technology to convert waste plastics and supply circular feedstock to Dow for the production of plastics for food-contact, health, hygiene, and fitness applications.

Dow is further investing with recycling partner Valoregen in what it says will be the largest single hybrid recycling site in France, with a planned capacity to process up to 70,000 mt/year of waste plastic into post-consumer resins. The site is planned to combine chemical - and mechanical - recycling processes, with the initial phase expected to be operational in the first quarter of 2023.

In each case, Dow will be the main offtaker of the feedstocks from the projects and says the plants it expects to establish will make it the largest consumer of circular feedstock for polyethylene production globally.

Dow and Mura's first flagship recycling project will be co-located at Dow's integrated chemicals complex at Böhlen, Germany, with a final investment decision targeted by mid-2023, following a nine-month, front-end engineering and design study period that is getting under way. The120,000 mt/year chemical recycling plant will be the first based at a Dow site and is expected to be operational by 2025.

Following the traditional industry route, the plant at Böhlen will build on what is learnt at Mura's first pilot plant, being developed at Teesside, UK, and due to start operations in 2023.

Using Mura's patented HydroPRS™ conversion process, the Teesside facility will initially produce 20,000 mt/year of recyclate, to be ramped up later to 80,000 mt/year.

The planned expansion of Mura's process "is an important one because it's moving to scale. That's what the Böhlen project is all about," said Marc van den Biggelaar, director/advanced recycling, EMEA and APAC at Dow, speaking at a project briefing.

The plant in Germany "is the first step in scaling it up, speeding up the collaboration, and making sure we can make a bigger contribution to the circular economy," he said.

The Böhlen facility will essentially have specifications "five times the capacity of the Teesside facility," said Oliver Borek, chief commercial officer at Mura, at the briefing.

The estimated input of waste plastic feedstock for the plant is put at about 135,000 mt/year. Although a specific investment cost was not disclosed, Borek describes it as a "triple digit million [Euro] amount,certainly in excess of Eur100 million. There will be additional investment in a material preparation plant and into a hydrotreater on site, so that will be added to the main investment of the HydroPRSplant."

Borek says Germany is an ideal location because of its industrial infrastructure, with Böhlen "completely representative of that. Being co-located within the boundary limits of a cracker, which offers all the utilities, has all the benefits of a plug-and-play principle."

The benefits of chemical recycling projects being co-located at Dow's sites globally include potentially significant reductions in scale-up costs and an expected lowering in carbon emissions by minimizing transportation of the offtake, says Dow.

Dow has targeted the collection, reuse, or recycling of 1 million mt/year of waste plastics globally by 2030, and it says mechanical - and advanced - recycling technologies are essential to achieving its commitment to incorporate at least 100,000 mt/year of recycled plastics in its product offerings sold in the EU by 2025.

Dow's support for Mura on its projects has led to a "highly financeable commercial arrangement," with their collaboration helping the two companies achieve their ambitions in the advanced recycling space, says Steve Mahon, CEO of Mura.

Mura's proprietary technology differs from the predominant pyrolysis processes being employed in the majority of announced chemical-recycling projects. The hydrothermal process uses supercritical steam to break down all forms of plastics, including flexible and multilayer plastics, into base chemicals and oils.

Supercritical steam process

After raw waste material has been initially filtered by Mura to remove all non-plastic items to meet its process specifications, the material is placed in an extruder, where the plastic is melted and put under high pressure before it is mixed with supercritical steam in a reactor.

"It's a continuous process, so we don't just do one batch and then turn it off. It takes about 13 minutes to produce the desired outcome," said Borek.

The product is then depressurized through a distillation column to produce various fractions that constitute the end products. This is further upgraded using traditional hydrotreating technology to remove any remaining unwanted materials such as oxygen or nitrogen that "Dow doesn't ideally want to introduce into its cracker," he said.

"We replace those unwanted atoms with hydrogen and then it reaches a specification where Dow feels comfortable to introduce it into its existing infrastructure," he added.

One of the primary benefits of Mura's HydroPRS process is its scalability, Borek said. "We can buildsome very large plants this way, saving ourselves a lot of money by keeping it simple and havingone, two, or three units operating at very large scale."

The technology is also able to cope with arange of waste polymers, including mixed plastics and multilayered films that Borek says are "impossible to recycle mechanically."

Most of the product will be blended into the existing fossil feedstock for Dow's cracker, while any offgas can also be used as feedstock to increase the yield further.

"A mass-balance system will be needed, using a system such as ISCC Plus, which is accepted by customers and brand owners, where you have a full chain of custody," he said.

According to Gary Godwin, vice president/technology solutions at Mura's exclusive global licensing partner KBR, all the products made using Mura's technology can be used.

In addition to the offgas, there are four main liquid products: a naphtha cut, a gasoil cut, a vacuum gasoil cut, and a heavy waxy residue, he said.

"Those first two cuts can be used and sent direct to steam crackers. But even the bottom cuts can be used in fluidized catalytic crackers to produce even more olefins. The quality of the products allow for blending into conventional hydrocarbons, so it's a highly flexible process unit that maximizes olefins production," he said.

Dow's Biggelaar flags applications such as food packaging as a strong example of where mechanical recycling "is not the best method" owing to the packaging typically being contaminated and consisting of multiple layers of different plastic types.

"Such applications you can only bring back into the loop when you use chemical recycling. By using chemical recycling as a complementary technology on top of mechanical recycling, we can make sure that a larger part of the waste plastic is recycled," he said.

It will also avoid that material going directly for incineration, with a reduction in carbon emissions as a result, he added. In Germany, landfill is not a waste disposal option, with about 6.2 million mt/year of waste plastics currently collected and about half of it incinerated.

Biggelaar says food packaging will represent a significant portion of the input into Mura's plant.

"The idea is that with a circular economy we bring waste plastics back into similar applications and try to make sure we go from downcycling to real recycling, or even upcycling … for example for food packaging. You will see quite a lot of these circular products ending up in our polyethylene business, being used for packaging solutions."

The plant's products will also end up in other applications, notes Biggelaar.

"For example, being used in automotive appliances and other products than just PE … all the other businesses and markets will follow," he said.

Dow and Mura's plans are evolving beyond Böhlen, with discussions under way to meet Dow's future offtake requirements at other locations in Europe and the US.

"It wouldn't surprise me if in the next few years you see projects even larger than Böhlen," said Borek.

He describes the plant's120,000 mt/year capacity as being "in a sweet spot" where it meets the requirements of scale while also recognizing logistical, health, and safety challenges related to the input onsite of the waste raw materials.

"Technologically, in splendid isolation, there's nothing that stops us from making it larger… but you're trying to marry this chemical element with the real-world feedstock element," he said.

This story also appears on Chemical Week by S&P Global