April 2019

Trends & Resources

Business Trends: How plastics waste recycling could transform the chemical industry

If plastics demand follows its current trajectory, global plastics-waste volumes would grow from 260 MMtpy in 2016 to 460 MMtpy by 2030, taking what is already a serious environmental problem to a new level.

If plastics demand follows its current trajectory, global plastics-waste volumes would grow from 260 MMtpy in 2016 to 460 MMtpy by 2030, taking what is already a serious environmental problem to a new level. In the face of public outcry about global plastics pollution, the chemical industry is starting to mobilize on this issue. In a recent article, the authors’ company showed how industry leadership is moving beyond the use-once-and-discard approach—under which the plastics industry has grown up—and embracing an expanded definition of product stewardship that includes dealing with plastics waste.1 This is what society demands, and it is becoming a condition for the industry to retain its license to operate. It could also represent an important and profitable new business opportunity.

That last insight is built on our comprehensive assessment of where future global waste flows will come from, how they could be recycled and what economic returns this activity could offer—research that has filled a major gap in the public debate. This work outlines a scenario for the plastics industry through which 50% of plastics worldwide could be reused or recycled by 2030—a fourfold increase over what is achieved at present—and which also has the potential to create substantial value. Following that path, plastics reuse and recycling could generate profit pool growth of as much as $60 B for the petrochemicals and plastics sector, representing nearly two-thirds of its possible profit pool growth over the projected period. The levels of support that will be needed more broadly across society (including from regulators; major plastics users, such as consumer-packaged-goods companies; and consumers) to get to this outcome is also discussed.

For petrochemicals and plastics companies—and by extension the chemical industry, since plastics production accounts for well over one-third of the industry’s activities—this presents an array of threats and opportunities. This work outlines the kinds of strategic questions they will need to evaluate and the choices they will need to make.

Modeling a virtuous circle of plastics recycling worldwide

Fig. 1. Most plastics waste goes to landfills and incineration.
Fig. 1. Most plastics waste goes to landfills and incineration.

The authors’ research shows that just 12% of plastics waste is reused or recycled (FIG. 1). The fact that the great majority of used plastics goes to incineration, landfills or dumps means that these materials are lost forever as a resource, despite plastics’ potential for reuse and recycling. It can be argued that incineration at least recovers the energy contained in plastics, but our research shows that the associated efficiency is typically low. Plastics production requires substantial capital investment and a substantial carbon footprint. Reusing plastics not only reduces these investment needs, but can also contribute to reducing total industrial carbon emissions.

Images of plastics waste across the globe have contributed to a consumer backlash that is translating to regulatory moves to ban or restrict plastics use in numerous geographies, notably the European Union. Marine plastics pollution has clearly been a powerful force to mobilize public opinion. When considering the potential for plastics waste recycling, however, marine plastics pollution could best be understood as the highly visible tip of the iceberg.

What the chemical industry—along with major consumer industries, the waste industry, and society, more broadly—has been lacking is a clear picture of a path forward under which the volumes of plastics being discarded could be recaptured and reused.

Also lacking has been a full perspective on where most of the waste will come from and which recovery and recycling technologies offer the biggest potentials.

The research described here addresses this gap with a comprehensive model of global plastics waste generation, the different approaches to plastics reuse and associated recycling technologies, and their economics. The reference case scenario assumes an oil price of $75/bbl. The authors have also explored lower and higher price scenarios and their correspondingly smaller and larger potential profit pools, as well as different societal approaches to recycling, since all these factors have a major influence on the feasibility of plastics recycling.

Technologies to handle all polymer families

A number of enabling technologies that underpin these projections—technologies exist or are recognized as technically feasible and could make possible more plastics reuse. These include a massive expansion of mechanical recycling volumes and the launch, on an industrial scale, of two relatively new technologies—monomer recycling and reprocessing of plastics waste to make liquid feedstock in a cracking-type process (e.g., pyrolysis).

Fig. 2. How the different technologies and geographical regions  could contribute to profit pool growth to 2030.
Fig. 2. How the different technologies and geographical regions could contribute to profit pool growth to 2030.

 
Mechanical recycling is already established as a sizeable business—if nowhere near the scale of the mainstream petrochemicals and plastics industry—in many of the world’s developed economies, and it is focused on polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polypropylene (PP) recycling. Contrary to commonly held assumptions that waste management is simply a cost burden for municipalities and taxpayers, there are many examples where mechanical recycling is already profitable, albeit often in selective applications or markets. This is because of its fundamentally different starting point from traditional plastics manufacture: mechanical recycling can generate new polymer without having to invest billions of dollars in steam crackers and other units to create petrochemical building blocks. Therefore, it starts out as a comparatively advantaged route to polymer production (FIG. 2).

The mechanical recycling technology can also be used for recycling many other polymers. However, these businesses have not grown much due to constraints in collection of the other major-volume resins, such as low-density polyethylene (LDPE). The modeling suggests that LDPE and HDPE mechanical recycling has the potential to generate the largest profit pool through 2030, primarily reflecting expectations for continuing high profitability in the virgin PE market due to the tight supply/demand outlook. The projections suggest that mechanical recycling rates could increase from the present level of 12% of total plastics volumes to 15%–20% of the much larger projected total plastics output by 2030, assuming oil prices of $75/bbl. Mechanical recycling levels are limited by the fact that polymer quality deteriorates after multiple rounds of recycling, to the point that the resin cannot be mechanically recycled again. Mechanically recycled polymers also build up residue from pigments. At this point, pyrolysis provides the best value-creating treatment option. Under a scenario where oil prices move below $65/bbl, the economics of mechanical recycling become more challenging; this pattern was seen following the 2015 drop in oil prices and was a factor in slowing recycling efforts.

The second component is monomer recycling. Although it is inherently restricted in its application to condensation-type polymers, such as PET and polyamide (also known as nylon), monomer recycling has the potential to generate some of the highest plastics recycling profitability levels. Monomer recycling can avoid the capital investments needed for steam crackers and aromatics plants, as well as the high-capital-cost plants required to make PET and polyamide intermediates.

Third, the analysis suggests that reconverting waste plastics into cracker feedstocks that could displace naphtha or natural gas liquids demand (likely using a pyrolysis process) also may be economically viable, and it is more resilient to lower oil prices, remaining profitable down to $50/bbl. Pyrolysis is an invaluable technology to treat mixed polymer streams, which mechanical recycling technologies cannot handle. Pyrolysis processes can convert used plastics to a hydrocarbon fraction that can be used as feedstock in olefins crackers or as a transportation fuel. The decision on which use it would go to would depend on demand dynamics in the location where the pyrolysis plant operates. Pyrolysis also is an important back-up process to handle polymers that have exhausted their potential for further mechanical recycling. Several pyrolysis players are coming forward, offering a range of facilities from large-scale plants with capacities of 30,000 tpy–100,000 tpy to much smaller-scale modular units with capacities below 3,000 tpy.

Building a global picture

How could different regions contribute to worldwide growth of value creation? The modeling includes projecting the deployment of the most appropriate technology in geographies where it is needed and considers that some are still on a steep learning curve. The scenarios also incorporate an assessment of how waste collection and management will be able to ramp up. For example, most emerging market countries lack infrastructure for sorting trash into different waste streams (and even in countries where human waste pickers salvage plastics, the volumes recovered are a small part of the total waste flow). As these countries build up their waste-management capabilities, the first step will be to separate the plastics waste from other wastes. Once this is achieved, pyrolysis of mixed plastics waste is likely to provide the most efficient way to process it, until capabilities are in place to separate different plastics. In the short to medium term, emerging markets are also likely to need to build incinerators to address their overall waste flows.

Not surprisingly, projections for 2030 suggest that China would represent the biggest potential profit pool, reflecting its position as the world’s biggest market for plastics use and biggest plastics waste generator, as well as that it has long had an established market for reused resin. Outside China, Asia will be the next biggest profit pool, a reflection of the massive projected demand growth in the region for plastics through 2030. In both the US and Europe, redirecting plastics waste into plastics production via mechanical recycling or pyrolysis, instead of abandoning it in landfills or incinerating it, could generate sizeable profit pools.

Plastics waste flows transformed

Fig. 3. Achieving a 50% reuse and recycling rate in 2030 would entail reshaping plastics waste flows.
Fig. 3. Achieving a 50% reuse and recycling rate in 2030 would entail reshaping plastics waste flows.

 
Based on these models, the authors project that plastics reuse could rise to as much as 50% of plastics production by 2030, assuming a $75/bbl oil price and an effective regulatory framework reinforced by supportive behavior from other industry stakeholders and consumers (
FIG. 3). This rate would still be lower than what the paper industry has achieved but would nevertheless represent a major step for the petrochemical and plastics industry.

To achieve a 50% recovery rate by 2030, the modeling suggests that waste-recovery capital investment of $15 B/yr–$20 B/yr would be required. To put those figures into perspective, the global petrochemical and plastics industry has invested, on average, approximately $80 B/yr–$100 B/yr over the past decade.

A new manufacturing landscape for the plastics industry

A reuse level of this kind would also profoundly affect new plastics production. By 2030, up to nearly one-third of plastics demand could be covered by production based on previously used plastics rather than from “virgin” oil and gas feedstocks. This estimate is based on a high-adoption scenario, comprising a massive increase in mechanical recycling volumes, a takeoff in pyrolysis and oil prices at around $75/bbl.

Fig. 4. By 2050, nearly 60% of plastics production could be based on plastics reuse and recycling. 
Fig. 4. By 2050, nearly 60% of plastics production could be based on plastics reuse and recycling. 

 
Projecting to 2050 suggests that nearly 60% of plastics demand could be covered by production based on previously used plastics (FIG. 4). This will substantially reduce the amount of oil required to satisfy global plastics demand, with projections suggesting 30% lower oil demand than in a business-as-usual scenario. This outcome would require revisions of recently published forecasts that show petrochemicals making the largest contribution to oil demand growth over the next two decades.

What this means for petrochemicals, plastics players

Fig. 5. Plastics reuse and recycling could drive the majority of value creation in petrochemicals during the coming decade.
Fig. 5. Plastics reuse and recycling could drive the majority of value creation in petrochemicals during the coming decade.

 
Under the high-adoption scenario, the cost position of plastics waste-based feedstocks—via mechanical recycling, monomer recycling or reuse through pyrolysis or other feedstock supply—could potentially be so attractive that they could account for two-thirds of the profit pool growth of the petrochemicals and plastics industry by 2030 (FIG. 5).

The authors would like to underscore the repositioning of the industry that this change would represent. Over the past two decades, the petrochemical industry has seen a major part of its profitability growth come from accessing advantaged feedstock. Assuming the scenario conditions can be met, the ability to access and handle plastics waste would be a comparable key to success in the future, with plastics waste potentially becoming the next source of feedstock advantage for polymer production.

How should petrochemical and plastics companies position themselves for these possibilities, and what steps should they take to be able to capture a share of the potential profit pool?

First, chemical company CEOs should acknowledge that resolving the plastics waste issue is a long-term challenge that may not be resolved on their watch, but it is nevertheless one where they need to decide what steps to take in the long-term interest of their enterprise and of society. Simultaneously, they need to recognize this as a classic case of “strategy under uncertainty” in which they need to factor in potentially different outcomes and plan their strategies with the appropriate degree of flexibility.

Second, they need an understanding of how the position of their product portfolio is likely to evolve, under the different plastics recycling scenarios. That will bring to the surface potential actions to take and investment opportunities—or conversely, problems to be addressed in their current portfolio.

Third, companies must plan their moves around three areas of activity that will underpin future growth in plastics recycling. This will be partly determined by what geographies they are active in and which polymers they make. Plastics companies should work with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and regulators to design uses of plastics that are straightforward to recycle, and push for levels of recycled content that will stimulate demand. To ensure a growing and high-quality supply of waste to recycle, plastics companies need to get involved in waste management technology improvements that will facilitate collection, sorting and cleaning. Finally, plastics makers should support development of technologies and building of recycling infrastructure that will bring waste plastics back into the value chain.

A new relationship to oil? These projections for how future plastics demand could be met—with nearly 60% of plastics demand covered using recovered plastics as raw material by 2050—suggest that expectations for oil demand growth may need to be revised. Over the past several years, a view has emerged that growing demand for petrochemicals—primarily for plastics manufacture—could help offset the fall in demand for oil resulting from electric vehicles making inroads into the vehicle fleet. This view was summarized in the International Energy Agency’s 2018 report, The Future of Petrochemicals. However, if plastics waste can cover as much as nearly 60% of new demand for plastics, as shown in FIG. 5, it will reduce oil demand for making those plastics. The authors’ projections suggest that oil demand growth for chemicals production could evolve closer to 1%/yr than the 4%/yr that has been shared in recent demand forecasts. While increased recycling of plastics represents a gain in circular economy terms, it is less good news for oil resource holding countries and oil companies, which will lose part of a source of future demand growth.

The new to-do list

Several no-regrets moves are coming into view. Establishing partnerships or identifying acquisition targets could help players gain access to needed technology or secure enough access to waste plastics feedstock supply. In the case of technology, that may include investing in startups undertaking promising process development and collaborating with research institutes. In the case of feedstock, this could take the form of long-term supply agreements with municipalities, waste management companies, landfill sites and, in effect, any player with access to large quantities of plastics waste. Possible strategies could even include back integration, whereby a petrochemical company acquires or establishes a waste collection operation.

Plastics companies may want to boost their investments in mechanical recycling operations to facilitate rapid expansion of their offering to include recycled resins. Over the past year, there have been several acquisitions of plastics recycling companies in Europe by major petrochemical companies, a trend that is likely to continue.

Petrochemical and plastics companies must be prepared to adopt a different business model, where they will have to source plastics waste supply from many scattered players, rather than getting their raw materials in bulk from one source.

Certain regions, technologies and polymers could be much more attractive than others. Companies will need to identify what their product portfolio priorities and regional focus should be.

Takeaway

As demand for plastics continues to grow worldwide, the imperative to put in place an effective system to handle the waste plastics volumes that will be generated becomes more pressing. The authors’ research shows that a development path could be established that could quadruple the amount of waste plastics going to reuse and recycling to around 50% of the volumes produced. Getting there will require an alignment of regulators and supporting conduct from major user industries, such as consumer goods and automotive, as well as society. For the chemical industry, the stakes are high. It has much to lose if the waste plastics issue develops into widespread product bans and demand destruction. However, it also has much to gain, through building a recycling-based branch of the petrochemicals and plastics industry and tapping potential profit pool growth. HP

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The authors wish to thank Florian Budde, Stefan Emprechtinger, Manuela Hollering, Henry Keppler, Mikhail Kirilyuk and Helga Vanthournout for their contributions to this article.

LITERATURE CITED

  1. Hundertmark, T., C. McNally, T. J. Simons and H. Vanthournout, “No time to waste: What plastics recycling could offer,” McKinsey.com, September 2018, online: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/chemicals/our-insights/no-time-to-waste-what-plastics-recycling-could-offer?

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