‘Chemical recycling approach will become global blueprint’
December 21, 2020
Chemical recycling will become a game changer in the waste processing and chemical sector. It is not only important for attaining the climate and circular targets, but it also offers opportunities for enhancing the international competitive strength of the chemical industry in the Delta region and beyond. This requires a border-transcending approach.
That is the view of Freek van Eijk, Director of Holland Circular Hotspot and Vice-Chairman of Circular Biobased Delta. In November he moderated a Circular Biobased Delta webinar on chemical recycling in which cooperation in this field with North Rhine-Westphalia was a key theme. Freek van Eijk and all other speakers emphatically stated that chemical recycling has a role alongside other sorely needed circular transition steps, such as design and redesign, reuse and mechanical recycling.
On December 18, this interview by Pierre Gielen was published by Agro & Chemistry.
Image above: ChemCycling plant in Denmark, BASF SE
The chemical recycling of plastics still is in its infancy: of the almost 1 Mt of waste plastics produced, used and discarded by citizens of the Netherlands each year, 2% is chemically recycled (18 kt). The NRK and PlasticsEurope sector organisations estimate that this must become approx 50% by 2050, while the production of plastics is expected to grow to 1.6 Mt by that time according to the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO). A lot of effort is therefore being devoted by the chemical industry to increasing its share of chemical recycling. Given a climate emission reduction target of 49% by 2030 (and 95% by 2050), the need is there. ‘We still have ten years. That is very little given the fact that new technology requires at least five to ten years to develop to a mature technology readiness level (TRL),’ says Van Eijk.
The same applies in Germany. Dr Henning Wilts of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy studied the state of affairs concerning chemical recycling projects in North Rhine-Westphalia and concluded that currently there are more than 150 projects ongoing at the lower TRL levels, but that few commercial solutions are available.
For industry the climate targets not only mean that energy will have to become renewable, but it also means that fossil input into processes will have to be replaced by circular raw materials at a rapid pace. This is a major challenge because multiple transitions are running in parallel, such as offshore renewable energy, hydrogen production, the electrification of industrial processes and the large-scale capture and reuse of CO2 (CCU). Van Eijk: ‘But once the chemical industry starts upscaling, it immediately involves large volumes. A million tonnes is nothing.’
Chemical building blocks
A company such as BASF has also set its sights on this. ‘For us the chemical recycling of plastic waste plays an important role in the transformation towards a circular economy,’ says Sebastian Zeller, CTO at BASF. ‘The chemical industry must play a leading role in this regard by making greater use of more renewable and recycled feedstocks and by developing new material cycles and business models for this purpose.’
For example, in 2018, BASF created the ChemCyclingTM project to build relatively small plants for the local production of pyrolysis oil to avoid having to traverse large distances with waste plastics. The oil produced this way in the first instance is not meant to be used for energy generation, but as a raw material for chemical building blocks. ‘Refuse-derived fuel has value in reducing fossil fuels and for waste management in countries with little waste management and other infrastructure. But this is a one-off effect; it withdraws raw materials from the material cycle. This is why we do not consider pyrolysis oil as a fuel a chemically recycled product.’ BASF uses the pyrolysis oil as a substitute for fossil naphtha in a steam cracker to make plastics from it. The quality of the recycled material is the same as that of virgin plastics, as a result of which it can be used for high-performance products, such as food packaging and automotive parts.
The Netherlands, Belgium and North Rhine-Westphalia collectively have a strong position in sustainable chemistry and as such a good chance of becoming a European frontrunner in this transition. Van Eijk: ‘Together we form the fourth-largest chemical cluster in the world, responsible for approximately 3.1% of the total global chemical industry. We have many knowledge institutes in the three regions, a huge interconnected network between the industrial regions and the ports, with many material and chemical flows moving back and forth. In other words, the region is already tightly connected and also has the shared vision that we need to form a united front together: the trilateral strategy.’
This provides entrepreneurs in the Delta region with excellent opportunities: ‘We are frontrunners with a strong quadruple helix, within which the Circular Biobased Delta establishes links between knowledge institutes, application centres, ports, as well as provinces, development companies and large companies that take things to the next level. The three large petrochemical crackers of Dow, Shell and Sabic, companies that in the planning stage anticipate the climate targets for industry, are located here. As a result the Southern Netherlands can be viewed as a kind of testing ground, a living lab, ideal for developing the transition. The trilateral region means we can achieve scale. If we then become first movers, our approach will become the blueprint for the world at large with all of the business opportunities this entails for the entire sector.’
In any event, the urgency is there. ‘Learning by doing is indispensable, If we wait until everything has crystalised, we’ll be lost. We must clearly focus on initiating projects and quickly manage to upscale them. Only mechanically or chemically recycling plastics is not enough, because it is clear that we cannot extract circular carbon from waste plastics all alone. We need the entire biobased economy for this purpose.’