Process & Chemicals

Balancing the value of plastic and the need for sustainability

As companies encounter mounting pressure to reduce their plastic usage and promote circularity of products, some sectors are under more scrutiny than others. In the case of the chemicals industry, where the production of plastics covers over one-third of activities, businesses are acting to reduce their impact on the environment while ensuring that production isn’t affected.

In the article “How plastics waste recycling could transform the chemical industry” McKinsey & Company reports that only 12% of plastics are reused. With improved technologies and wider application, more plastics can be recycled—as it stands, the majority of plastics are used once, then incinerated or sent to landfills.

In the chemicals industry, plastics are a valuable material because they’re cheap, durable and lightweight. The real issue is plastic wastage, which can only be addressed by developing more efficient waste management systems and encouraging reuse. In fact, chemicals companies are looking to use plastic waste as a raw material in production, converting it into a new product while removing what has ended up in the ocean or landfills. This can also be cost-effective for businesses as it’s cheap to use and readily available.

One such company is Petronas Chemicals, which is investigating the viability of constructing a plant to convert plastic waste into virgin feedstock in Malaysia. In June, they announced that they were exploring options to build a facility in conjunction with Plastic Energy, a recycling company that specialises in difficult to recycle plastic. Their process would use thermal anaerobic conversion, where plastic is heated to create hydrocarbon vapours, which are divided into non-condensable and condensable gases—the latter which can be used to reuse plastics.

Mechanical recycling, where waste materials are recycled into new raw materials without making changes to their basic structure, is useful for processing polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE). The process generates new polymers (large molecules that form plastic) without the need for expensive equipment, such as steam crackers, and has already been profitable in some specialised markets.

Two recently developed recycling processes include monomer recycling and modifying plastic waste into liquid feedstock via pyrolysis, a cracking-type method. Monomer recycling is restricted to condensation-type polymers, such as PET and polyamide. Like mechanical recycling, this is because it doesn’t require investment in expensive equipment or plants. The second method that offers a viable recycling option is pyrolysis, where plastics are converted into cracker feedstocks and can process mixed polymer streams, unlike mechanical recycling technologies.

Many of these technologies require the appropriate infrastructure and systems to run waste management processes that are efficient enough to sort plastics from other waste. Waste must first be separated into plastics and non-plastics, then sorted by the type of plastic. In countries where recycling processes are still in nascent stages and being hand sorted, the pyrolysis process will be most efficient, as it can be used to process mixed plastics.

If these plastic recycling processes are adapted across the petrochemicals industry, it’s estimated that this could result in two-thirds of value creation in the sector by 2030; because of this, companies are preparing now to ensure that they can take advantage of the potential profit to be made. It’s therefore beneficial for these businesses to work closely with regulators and original equipment manufacturers (OEMS) to design and produce plastics that are easily reused while involving themselves in the advancement of waste management technology to ensure that these plastics can be widely processed in large volumes.

Chemicals company Borealis, which specialises in the production of polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), recognises the benefit of investing into research and development in this field and is spending $150m USD a year on research and technology. Other companies are also using highly recyclable plastics that can be molecularly engineered and have a low carbon footprint. As a result, PE and PP are set to become more widely used because of their ability to be recycled at low cost and with a reduced environmental impact.

Because of the major transformations underway in the chemicals sector, there’s a need for new sustainability competencies throughout the value chain. Talking with directors of businesses in this area, they’re telling me that the experience and skills sought after are wide, but include:

  • Ability to link environmental/sustainability aspects into value creation, for example through market development, marketing and sales;
  • Ability to follow and understand the rapidly developing and multidimensional research driving regulation and sustainability standards;
  • Capability to bring together the differing views from different stakeholders such as industry, research and non-profit organisations (NGOs);
  • Life cycle assessment (LCA) approach and emissions calculations understanding;
  • Experience from sustainability certification (standard requirements, internal control, audits and traceability);
  • Specific IT skills covering traceability, such as blockchain, trace and claim or similar; and
  • Ability to engage suppliers to fulfil sustainability requirements.

In addition to sustainable supply chain management, experience from policy and legislative requirements, sustainability reporting, eco-labels, chemical safety and recycling and renewables are valued. Furthermore, roles related to the leading of virtual teams, strategy and target setting, new business concepts and sustainability communication are important.

Sound like you? If you’re looking for your next challenge in the chemicals sector, then why not get in touch with me at today? I’m currently recruiting for leading companies in this field and would love to talk.

McKinsey | How plastics waste recycling could transform the chemical industry
ICIS | Borealis to place PE,
The Chemical Engineer |Petronas Chemicals looks to convert waste plastic into feedstock

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