30th November 2020

Turning chemical recycling of plastics from a promise into an industrial solution

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Although we have been talking about circular economy for quite some time already, the world’s economy is still only 8.6% circular today (source: Circular bioeconomy study, 2020, WBCSD & BCG). In 2018, over 29 million tons of post-consumer plastic waste was collected in Europe, and of this, only 9.4 million tons was directed to recycling (source: Plastics Europe) – even less actually recycled. At the same time, the share of global oil production used to produce plastics is expected to increase from the current 6% to reach 20% by 2050 (source: New Plastics Economy, Ellen MacArthur Foundation). 

Neste is focused on creating solutions for combating climate change and accelerating a shift to a circular economy. We refine waste, residues and innovative raw materials into sustainable feedstock for plastics and other materials and into renewable fuels. We wish to contribute to changing the figures mentioned above by developing chemical recycling technologies and capacity with Recycling Technologies and other value chain partners, to accelerate the plastics industry transformation into a circular economy. We have set a target to process annually over 1 million tons of waste plastic from 2030 onwards, and will refine liquefied plastic waste into high-quality drop-in feedstock for new high-quality plastics and chemicals.

We just recently launched a new product, Neste RE Renewable and Recycled™, a more sustainable raw material for plastics and chemicals production. The product’s recycled component is derived from chemically-recycled plastic waste. Our product helps tackle climate change through reducing the need to use virgin fossil resources, while making it possible to use both bio-based waste and residues as well as waste plastic in the manufacture of high-quality products. Neste RE can be used in a wide range of plastics applications, from sports gear to toys, even in sensitive applications such as high-performing medical equipment. 

This is, in fact, significant as the plastic industry has not previously been able to produce common essential items such as food packaging, medical supplies, hygienic packaging for healthcare items, or toys from recycled plastic. The quality of mechanically recycled plastic and the risks of contamination do not meet product safety requirements. Enter chemical recycling, however, and the products in these groups can be manufactured from recycled plastic. Seeing recycled material used in any one of these fields will mark a major breakthrough for the industry.

Chemical recycling enables recycling of plastic waste streams that have low or no value in conventional mechanical recycling. Through the chemical recycling process, plastic waste is liquefied into an oil that can be used to replace fossil raw materials in the production of new plastics and chemicals. The more fossil resource based content is replaced with content from both renewable and recycled origins, the better for our planet. Unlike most mechanical recycling, chemical recycling can produce a high-quality end product and return the plastics back to their original use. 

No fundamental technological obstacle prevents us from recycling almost all of the world’s plastic, yet the majority of the plastics we use will end up somewhere out of sight, burned, in a landfill—or at worst, leaking into our environment. We need to develop waste management infrastructures and educate people to change their attitudes toward plastic waste. In addition, we know improving and increasing the recycling of plastic waste is crucial. For this, we need a portfolio of different solutions, such as chemical recycling, suited for different types of plastic streams.

We already see forward-leaning refining and petrochemicals companies working together to provide future-oriented brands with chemically recycled raw material and educated consumers choosing to buy their products. That’s how we can demonstrate to the rest of the world that chemical recycling is possible and can contribute to the circular plastics economy.

Plastics-using companies have already started designing products for mechanical recycling. In the collaboration among Unilever, Recycling Technologies, and Neste we want to extend  the same approach to chemical recycling: understanding which additives and materials hinder chemical recycling and designing around those, while still maintaining the crucial qualities of the product or packaging, like light weight and ability to extend the shelf life of food. I’m confident that eventually, we as consumers will start viewing sustainable design as part of the value proposition of the products we buy. We will start rejecting products that are hard to reuse and recycle.

To move away from the use of fossil oil and to a truly circular plastics economy, we need to extend the minimum requirements for how much recycled plastic we use to cover all major applications, and we should see chemical recycling being acknowledged in plastic recycling targets in a few years’ time. We also need to continue to invest in the most promising initiatives to accelerate commercialization of chemical recycling technologies. Our collaboration with Recycling Technologies is a good example of how value chain partners can accelerate the development of this emerging industry together. 

In a few years’ time chemical recycling should not look like a trailblazing act of courage anymore but like a tested, accessible, profitable business. That’s when actors around the world, including developing countries, will get involved. That’s when plastic waste turns into such a valuable resource it no longer makes any sense to throw it away — let alone pay for getting it incinerated.

Heikki Färkkilä
Vice President Chemical Recycling
Renewable Polymers and Chemicals, Neste

The text is taken from an article originally published in Waste Matters, December 2020

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