Plastics are currently taking center stage in the public debate. It seems forgotten that plastics contribute to society in a range of applications – from packaging to safely store and transport food to building insulation that makes housing more energy-efficient and lightweight materials in automotive, saving fuel and reducing emissions. All these help to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations in 2016. With all the benefits that this material brings, we have yet to find a fully sustainable way to deal with a plastic product once it has fulfilled its initial purpose and has reached its end of life. We all agree that plastics do not belong in the environment. This is why the current debate about plastic waste is important.

Going circular – meaning the introduction of waste plastic back into the material stream –is one of the ways to resolve this issue. Plastic waste needs to be seen not just as something that ends up in landfills or in incinerators but as a raw material or feedstock for another useful purpose. We need to think differently about how we design products, use and collect them, and also how we bring new technologies to market. To be successful, initiatives require industry value chain collaboration, and plastic producers have risen to the challenge. LyondellBasell is actively engaged in two areas of plastics recycling where we are looking to create new polymers from plastic waste.

We are working with the resource management company, SUEZ, in the mechanical recycling of household plastic waste through our joint venture, Quality Circular Polymers (QCP). The waste material is pre-sorted and sent to QCP where it is cleaned, washed, shredded and made into new, high-quality polymers. Historically, recycled polymers have been associated with low-end applications and were often noted to be less durable or thinner in quality. However, the industry has made improvements over the years. Our QCP joint venture leverages SUEZ’s knowledge of sorting technology to separate the used plastics into individual polyethylene and polypropylene waste streams. When combined with the manufacturing know-how of QCP and the capabilities of LyondellBasell in the development of high-quality polymers, the end result is mechanically recycled materials that can be used in high-end applications such as bottles for household detergents and shampoos and suitcases.

“Going circular – meaning the introduction of waste plastic back into the material stream –is one of the ways to resolve the plastic issue”.

While mechanical recycling is undoubtedly making progress and finding its way into new applications, we believe that this technology alone will not be enough to achieve circularity. It will also not meet the various governmental waste directive targets and requirements from brand owners that call for a large percentage of packaging items to be recycled. Importantly, mechanically recycled polymers currently have limitations in that they are not typically approved for use in food contact or medical applications.

This is why LyondellBasell is furthering the development of its proprietary molecular recycling technology known as MoReTec. Here, a chemical process is used to turn polymers back into monomers, which can be used again in polymer production. Unlike mechanical recycling, which relies on strict sorting of individual plastics, this technology can recycle a plastic mix containing multilayer and hybrid plastic materials, and offers the removal of any plastic additives in the material. The output from molecular recycling is not plastic as in the mechanical recycling process, but an oil that can be used as a feedstock in the creation of new plastic materials.

The pyrolysis process used in molecular recycling is a known technology that has been used for years on a smaller scale to create an oil that is similar to diesel – a material not suitable for steam crackers used in polymer production. The work LyondellBasell is presently doing in collaboration with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) is making a pyrolysis oil that has almost the same properties as naphtha, a feedstock we use at our facilities.

LyondellBasell is hoping our work with KIT will result in a step-change in this technology, paving the way for the use of molecular recycling at a larger commercial scale. We are currently building a pilot plant at our site in Ferrara, Italy, to further the development of a catalyzed pyrolysis process, which involves breaking down the structure of plastic waste into small molecules. Initial trials have shown that the use of a catalyst in a pyrolysis process is faster and more energy-efficient than traditional chemical recycling, which would help to achieve scale. As the world’s leading producer of polyolefins catalysts, we are confident that we have the knowledge to achieve success.