EPCA 2019: Plastics sustainability, climate change top the agenda

13:26 PM | October 8, 2019 | Ian Young in Berlin

CROTTY: Chemical recycling can be transformational.

Sustainability, the circular economy, and climate change were the main themes of Tuesday’s opening session at the European Petrochemical Association (EPCA) 53rd annual meeting, taking place in Berlin, Germany. Speakers agreed that all stakeholders—regulators and the public, producers of petrochemicals and plastics, and waste-management companies—have a role to play in seeking solutions, and said that cooperation and partnerships are crucial.

Marc Schuller, president of EPCA and executive vice president at Arkema, highlighted in his opening remarks the growing public concern and impatience over climate change and plastic waste, particularly littering with single-use plastics. “There is a sense of urgency, and we must embrace it to keep up with this new pace of change and ambition,” Schuller said. “The critical issue today is one of timing. The time available for developing new strategies is starting to run out.”

Tom Crotty, group director at Ineos, said in a keynote address that the drive for a circular economy is “the next big challenge” for the petrochemicals and plastics industry. Chemical recycling, if it becomes feasible on a commercial scale, will enable 100% recycling of polymers, effectively creating “the perfect closed loop,” Crotty said.

The mechanical recycling of polymers, in comparison, has limitations in terms of capability and product quality, according to Crotty. “Chemical recycling is the technology, but we have to prove the concept. Yes, it’s possible, but lots of value-chain steps are required to make it happen. We need an integrated value chain and currently [industry has] no control over getting the polymer back.” Governments have a critical role to play in helping to establish the value chain through waste-collection and -management initiatives, he said.

Crotty highlighted the work of Ineos Styrolution, an Ineos subsidiary, and its partners to develop a technology that depolymerizes styrenic plastics to make styrene monomer. “We have done it at pilot scale,” Crotty said. “But there is no single optimal technology. We are pursuing a whole range of technologies in parallel with various partners.”

Chemical recycling is “ultimately transformational for our industry, because it means we can make plastic from plastic,” Crotty said. “It’s our job over the next 5–10 years to achieve it.”

Patrick Labat, executive committee member/northern Europe at waste-management company Veolia, said in another keynote speech that the petrochemicals and plastics industry is “responsible” for closing the loop to create a circular economy. “But you are not the only ones,” he told EPCA delegates. “Brand owners and plastics converters are also responsible.”

Veolia is a founding member of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, and joined the initiative to enhance cooperation among stakeholders along the value chain. “We strongly believe that none of us has the entire solution in our own hands,” Labat said. “All of us has part of the solution.”

Labat identified four pillars that are essential to establishing a circular economy for plastics: infrastructure to collect and manage plastic waste; innovation to increase plastics’ recyclability and adapt packaging to include more recycled content; education, with the involvement of local authorities and communities; and action, “so that existing solutions can be implemented now.”

Climate change, meanwhile, offers “a real opportunity for our industry” to help establish a hydrogen economy, Crotty said. Ineos today makes about 250,000 metric tons/year of hydrogen as a by-product at its plants. “We use it as fuel, but we’re exploring a whole range of hydrogen uses to transform energy networks,” Crotty said.

The two hydrogen applications with the greatest potential are as a clean fuel and in fuel cells, and the petrochemical industry is well placed to drive their development, according to Crotty. “In the next 10–15 years, as an industry, we’ll be doing more in the hydrogen economy,” he said. “If we are fast enough and clever enough to make these technologies happen, there is a huge potential benefit for this industry.”

Labat highlighted the link between the circular economy and tackling climate change. He noted that making recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) emits 70% less carbon dioxide than producing virgin PET. “The petrochemical industry has to change the way it manufactures its products,” Labat said.

Better management of water, an increasingly scarce resource, is another way for petrochemical companies to reduce their environmental footprint, Labat said. “In the coming years, water management can be very important in maintaining the petrochemical industry’s license to operate,” he said. “The industry has to be part of the solution and must ask itself the question: Are we going to remain useful to the world in the coming years?”