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ExxonMobil, BP, TotalEnergies, Shell make moves in plastics recycling

30 May 2022 Clay Boswell

The advanced recycling of plastics remains a largely developmental activity, but the pace of investment is accelerating globally. With many commercial-scale processing facilities under construction, it may not be long before it begins to make a significant contribution to material supplies.

Advanced recycling, also known as molecular or chemical recycling, is essential to converting the plastics economy to circularity. Although mechanical recycling is preferred, owing to its resource efficiency, its implementation is severely constrained by degradation and contamination.

According to a recent study by S&P Global's Circular Plastics Service, mechanical recycling would be unlikely to exceed 22% of all recycling by 2050, even assuming significant advances in sorting, product design, and purification.

And it comes as pressure on major players in the petrochemicals and oil industries over plastics pollution grows, including from a May investigation by California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who subpoenaed ExxonMobil for the oil major's role in what he alleged was a "decades-long plastics deception campaign."

The last few months have seen a flurry of announcements relating to capital projects, development partnerships, and supply agreements that demonstrate steady progress across the range of recycling technologies.

Pyrolysis continues to dominate, in part because it is a mature technology able to convert a wide range of mixed plastics to pyrolysis oil, a naphtha-like material that can be processed by conventional steam crackers to produce olefins and aromatics.

ExxonMobil, Shell interest

Several new projects focus on polystyrene (PS). Oregon-based Agilyx has been a front-runner in this area, originally developing pyrolysis for the conversion of PS to styrene monomer, and later adapting the technology to produce methyl methacrylate (MMA) from polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA). In February, Toyo Styrene announced plans to build a $33-million, 3,000-mt/year PS recycling unit based on Agilyx's technology in Chiba, Japan. Startup is slated for the second half of 2023. According to an August 2021 announcement, Agilyx and Kumho Petrochemical are considering whether to build a PS recycling facility in South Korea. In December, Agilyx and Mitsubishi Chemical Methacrylates said they are considering the construction of a PMMA recycling plant.

In the meantime, Cyclyx International, a plastics recycling feedstock consortium co-founded by Agilyx and ExxonMobil, is adding new members. In December 2021, Cyclyx announced plans for a "first of its kind" waste plastics recovery facility to process feedstock for committed offtake into advanced recycling projects on the US Gulf Coast. Startup of the facility, which would process up to 60,000 mt/year of plastic, is slated for late 2022. Cyclyx is planning a network of similar recovery facilities linked to committed offtake.

ExxonMobil itself is a likely customer for the Cyclyx facility. The company's 30,000-mt/year pyrolysis unit in Baytown, Texas, is scheduled to begin operations in late 2022, and in March, ExxonMobil said it aims to increase its total advanced recycling capacity to 500,000 mt/year by the end of 2026.

Shell announced several major moves in late 2021, including plans to build two pyrolysis oil upgraders in the Netherlands to produce feedstock for its steam crackers at Moerdijk in the Netherlands, and Wesseling, Germany. Pryme will supply pyrolysis oil produced by a 60,000 mt/year plant currently under construction in Rotterdam, and from a planned 350,000-mt/year plant slated for completion in 2024. Another upgrading unit is to be built in Singapore. Startup for all the projects is slated for 2023.

BP, TotalEnergies offtakers

In May, TotalEnergies inked a contract with Texas-based New Hope Energy to receive 100,000 metric tons (mt)/year of pyrolysis oil to produce circular plastics at its facilities in Texas. New Hope, which has been operating its Trinity Oaks pyrolysis plant in Tyler since 2018, had already signed a multi-year supply contract with Dow in January. To support these contracts, New Hope is expanding the Trinity Oaks plant to 16,000 mt/year by the end of 2022 and 156,000 mt/year by 2025.

New Hope has partnered with Lummus Technology to license, scale up, and further develop its processing technology globally. In November 2021, a new Lummus subsidiary, Green Circle, announced UK-based Phigenesis had licensed the technology for a proposed 150,000-mt/year plant in Europe. Since December 2021, Green Circle has offered New Hope's pyrolysis technology in combination with Chevron Lummus Global's isoconversion technology and Lummus Technology's steam cracking technology. The result is an integrated package for the production of polymer-grade ethylene, polymer-grade propylene, and butadiene from mixed plastic waste.

Separately, BP announced a 10-year naphtha offtake agreement with Clean Planet Energy, which is building a 20,000 mt/year pyrolysis-based plant in Teesside in the UK. Clean Planet Energy intends to build up to 12 plants globally.

With demand for pyrolysis oil gaining momentum, other companies have unveiled projects, mostly of a similar scale. In May, Xycle, a joint venture of Vopak, NoWIT, and Patpert Teknow Systems, announced plans to begin building a 20,000 mt/year pyrolysis plant in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, by the end of 2022, with the plant expected to be operational in the fourth quarter of 2023. Xycle aims eventually to operate plants with capacities of 80,000-100,000 mt/year.

In April, Houston-based Freepoint Eco-Systems said it would proceed with construction of a pyrolysis-based plant in Hebron, Ohio. Completion of the facility, which will have capacity to process about 90,000 mt/year of plastic waste, is slated for 2023. In October 2021, Freepoint announced it was partnering with TotalEnergies and Plastic Energy to build a 33,000-mt/year facility in Texas that is scheduled to start up by mid-2024.

TotalEnergies has been especially active, first partnering with Plastic Energy in 2020 to build a 15,000-mt/year conversion plant at the French oil major's Grandpuits complex in France. That unit is slated for startup in 2023. In January, the two companies extended their partnership, announcing plans to build a 33,000-mt/year facility in Seville, Spain, with startup slated for early 2025.

Also in Spain, a 30,000-mt/year plant is planned by Honeywell and Sacyr, a Spain-based engineering and services company. Announced in November 2021, the facility will be located in Andalucia. In January, Honeywell announced a joint venture with Houston-based Avangard Innovative to build another 30,000-mt/year plant in Waller, Texas. Both projects will employ Honeywell's UpCycle technology, and are slated to begin operations in 2023.

Braskem in February announced it plans to build Brazil's first advanced recycling plant, a 6,000-mt/year pyrolysis unit based on technology developed by Valoren. To be located in the city of Indaiatuba, the plant is slated to begin operations in early 2023.

Bucking this trend toward small scale is the $1.1-billion project unveiled in April by Texas' Encina Development Group. Based on the company's proprietary plastic fluid catalytic cracking (PFCC) process, the Pennsylvania facility has been designed to produce 450,000-mt/year of aromatics, rather than stopping at pyrolysis oil. Encina expects to have the facility fully operational by fall 2024.

--Article first appeared in S&P Global Commodity Insights' Chemical Week publication.

This article was published by S&P Global Commodity Insights and not by S&P Global Ratings, which is a separately managed division of S&P Global.


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