WPC 2019: Industry must address plastic waste head on, says LyondellBasell CEO

03:56 AM | March 21, 2019 | Clay Boswell in San Antonio

Shaped by photographs of garbage-strewn beaches and reports of a vast Pacific garbage patch, public attitudes toward plastics are increasingly skeptical, and it will take more than education to reverse the trend, says Bob Patel, CEO of LyondellBasell. Speaking Wednesday at IHS Markit’s World Petrochemical Conference (WPC) 2019 in San Antonio, Texas, he warned that the problem of plastics waste is growing, and that it will require innovative solutions developed cooperatively across the value chain.

“Typically, as an industry we would say let's do more to explain why plastics are so good for society,” Patel told attendees. “But I think the time has now come to address the issue head on, rather than to be advocates for why plastics are great, because the perception is moving very, very rapidly.”

To illustrate, Patel noted that the number of Google searches for “marine litter” has increased by 204% since 2013, while the number of searches for “plastics pollution” has increased by 608%. He also cited recent polls finding that 86% of US and UK citizens are concerned about plastics waste in marine environments, and worse, 53% of US citizens and 68% of UK citizens believe it is necessary to eliminate the use of plastics in modern life.

“Make no mistake, this is a very relevant and prevalent topic,” Patel said. “Our children are being taught in schools that plastics are bad. If we don't do something about this waste issue, then perhaps those teachers are right—but we will do something.”

LyondellBasell has, for example, partnered with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany to develop a chemical recycling process to transform plastic waste into feedstock. The company has also partnered with SUEZ to start a recycling company in the Netherlands, Quality Circular Polymers.

“My point is that we’re going to have to move on multiple fronts,” said Patel. “It's not just about mechanical recycling or just about physical recycling. We're going to have to do several different things in parallel.”

Patel also discussed the Alliance to Prevent Plastic Waste, of which he is vice chairman. “The aim of the alliance is to solve this problem not only within our industry, but to have a cross-value-chain effort—brand owners, retailers, converters, waste handlers, and of course chemical companies,” he noted.

The industry will have to adjust to the ways circularity changes the market. Depending on how aggressively the transformation is pursued, producers might see half of new demand addressed by post-consumer recycled material. “From an operator’s perspective, it may necessitate some reduction in operating rates in the near term,” said Patel. “In the long term, it may change how we think about capital deployment and drive us to embed circularity into our business model. Regardless of the assumptions we use, it's clear the issue of sustainability will require changes in the way we think and the way we operate going forward.”

Chemweek TV at WPC 2019

Rob Westervelt interviews Bob Patel, CEO of LyondellBasell, at the 2019 World Petrochemical Conference in San Antonio, Texas.