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Surge into plastic recycling by chemicals and oil groups meets pushback

The leap of the world’s largest petrochemical and oil companies into plastic recycling as a “Plan B” in the industry is questionable, following a historic UN agreement to negotiate a binding legal treaty to deal with plastic pollution.

Despite extensive lobbying efforts Reduce the proposal to deal with plastic waste management, Convention Signed by 175 countries may impose an equal burden on plastics manufacturers to limit their production.

By 2050, petrochemical production will account for almost half of the increase in global oil demand Estimates By the International Energy Agency.

The industry needs solutions for plastic pollution that do not require it to reduce this production, as the world faces its reliance on oil and gas.

A growing area to which it descended was chemical or “advanced” recycling, a technology that turns plastic waste back into raw materials, or oils and gases, which are then recycled into petrochemical production.

Less than 10 percent of relatives 370 million tons Of plastics produced annually can be recycled. However, the demand for recycled plastics is rising as consumer product companies come under pressure to reduce their environmental impact.

The world’s largest petrochemical companies, including Dow, Sabic and Chevron Phillips Chemical, have all formed partnerships with recycling start-ups.

In China, Zhejiang Petrochemical invests nearly $ 29 billion in Integrated facility Produce both fuels and plastics from the same complex, with the backing of the Saudi oil exchange Aramco. Shell and ExxonMobil as well building Their own units for upgrading plastic waste.

European plastics manufacturers are expected to increase their investment in chemical turnover from 2.6 billion euros to 7.2 billion euros between 2025 and 2030, according to the industry body Plastics Europe.

In the U.S., the U.S. Chemicals Board reports that more than $ 7.5 billion in investments in advanced recycling projects have been announced since 2017, and more are expected.

In contrast to the existing mechanical “recycled and washed” mechanical recycling method, the most common form of chemical recycling is pyrolysis, which uses intense heat to break down hard-to-recycle plastics such as polyolefins. These are found in cling film, bottle caps, liquid containers and many other forms of home packaging.

While the industry markets this technology as a better alternative to traditional plastic recycling methods, scientists have concluded that pyrolysis is much more energy intensive.

The German BASF, the largest group of chemicals in the world, uses the process and there Found That the pyrolysis of polyethylene plastic produces 3.34 kg of carbon dioxide per kilogram, equivalent to burning a liter of oil for domestic heating.

You put the same amount of plastic in the landfill Emitter 0.06 kg in comparison, although this does not address the unsolvable problem of waste in soils and waterways.

The Natural Resources Protection Council (NRDC) released this month Findings That most chemical recycling facilities in the U.S. release hazardous amounts of hazardous pollutants to communities and the environment.

Jason Helt, a professor of sustainable chemical technology at Imperial College London, calls pyrolysis recycling a “solution to a problem.”

“The energy required for reprocessing is higher than the energy required for production [plastic] In the first place, “he said. Limiting carbon emissions in line with global warming targets Paris Climate AgreementIt is better to “bury things,” according to Halt.

Despite the rise in investment, the chemical plastics recycling sector is still far from reaching a commercial scale, according to industry analysts.

Projects need a processing capacity of about 100,000 metric tons to be economically sensible; He is currently one-tenth of that level, according to the IHS Markit data group. It will take until “long after 2030” to become significant, said Anthony Palmer, vice president of chemical consulting at IHS.

Proponents argue that over time the industry will expand exponentially. “If grown safely and circularly, these technologies can help add value to materials that currently have such a low value that it’s not even worth selecting, sorting or processing,” said Kate Daly, CEO of Closed Loop Partners. Circular.

Plastic Energy, a UK-based chemical recycling company, a partner of oil groups Total energies, ExxonMobil and SabikIs one of the few operators with commercially active establishments.

It uses pyrolysis to create a patented liquid oil for sale to the petrochemical industry. the business secure 145 million euros last November from investors to build more factories.

“You can not just look at energy consumption,” said Carlos Monreal, CEO of Plastic Energy. “We produce a product that has a much greater value and can be recycled as many times as you want for virgin quality plastic.”

Pyrolysis is dominant but is not the only chemical recycling method. French technology company Carbios uses the enzyme to activate a process that breaks down PET, which is commonly used to make plastic and polyester bottles. It focuses specifically on blended plastic and polyester fibers preferred by fast fashion brands that are not mechanically recyclable.

Not all companies are committed to ensuring that their materials are used to make plastics again. Of the 75 chemical recycling companies tested by Closed Loop Partners, less than 30 produce raw materials for this purpose.

The rest who operate commercially sell wax, liquid oil and naphtha gas, which are used as petrochemical nutrients or in transportation fuels. Daly of Closed Loop Partners said naphtha gas extracted from plastic waste may require a higher commodity price compared to virgin counterparts, thanks to the growing demand for more sustainable nutrients.

These companies may not be able to classify themselves as recyclers over time. Association of Plastic Recyclers, an international trading body, called for definition Of chemical recycling will be limited to processes that cause waste to become new plastic, rather than more oils and gases.

Last September, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was considering how to regulate pyrolysis and gasification facilities under the Clean Air Act.

Judith Ank, president of the nonprofit Beyond Plastics group and former EPA regional director, said the agency would have no choice but to regulate chemical recycling facilities as incinerators “because that’s what they are.”

“The industry does not want to reduce their plastic production so they need to buy themselves some time,” she said.

“I’m a little surprised that the chemical industry has put all of its eggs in this basket,” Ank added. “Because it’s a very swaying basket.”

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