Let's talk about it

Our challenge for the next decades

By Dr. Michael Londesborough

It is human nature to want it all. Unreasonable perhaps, but nevertheless a driving force.  Our species has excelled at imagining the impossible and then making it happen through hard work and innovation.  From the stone tool to the silicon chip, human inventiveness has provided solution after solution to the challenges we have faced.  Good reason to remain optimistic about the power of science and technology to overcome (almost) any problem. 

Currently, the biggest challenge humans face is how to support an increasing global population with the resources available.  Integral to this challenge are energy and materials.  Not just from where our energy and materials will come, but, just as importantly, how to limit the environmental impact of our consumption of them – pollution and waste.  How can we drive our cars, power industry, and make the stuff we need, whilst maintaining a sustainable environment in which to live?  In many ways this is the central question for strategists in the petrochemical industry.  How do we continue to benefit from the incredible value-creating potential of hydrocarbons (a resource par excellence) without putting more carbon into our atmosphere or polymers into our seas and landfills? 

There are two ways to think about this challenge. Either, “too hard, give up”, or “sounds exciting, let’s try!”. ORLEN Unipetrol’s declaration to strive for carbon-neutrality by 2050 (the first petrochemical company in Central Europe to do so) fills me with hope and excitement that we are entering a new age of strategic and technological innovation through which will help us successfully conquer the challenges ahead. It is going to be an exhilarating ride!

A critical aspect of any such strategy is what to do with plastic waste.  We live in a polymer age in which these synthetic wonder-materials bring huge benefits to many industries, from ensuring the safe transportation of blood, to reducing the weight of our vehicles, and enabling 3D-printer technology.  Plastics are here to stay.  Demand and production are on the increase.  What we need is innovation and implementation in the area of plastic recycling and/or regeneration.  We must refine our mechanisms to recycle and reuse, or incinerate and reclaim its internal energy.  Our wonder-material has to go “circular” in common economic parlance, and many interesting people and companies are working towards these ends.  ORLEN Unipetrol is very active in this field, something that has been my personal pleasure to be a part of during 2020.  The series “Let’s Talk About It” is a YouTube platformed project fuelled by ORLEN Unipetrol in which we talk to the movers and shakers working towards efficient plastic use and design, R&D, and recycling. From delineating the properties of different polymers to the pyrolytic recycling of plastic waste, we are trying to bring to the public all aspects and cover every perspective. So, when in the framework of Prague Innovation Week, the opportunity came to meet with four former LTAI guests, all experts on plastics, around one table, we set ourselves up at Kotelna 55 in Karlin and engaged in debate.

Our guests were: Vojtěch Vosecký, cofounder of the  Institute of Circular Economy ; Robert Suchopa, a  scientist from ORLEN Unipetrol’s research and education facilities UniCre, and  lead of project PYREKOL on the pyrolysis of plastic waste; Jiří Kotek, who is Director of the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry from the Academy of Sciences and Chairman of the European Plastics Federation; and Aleš Bláha, a member of the Prague Services Board of Directors, and director of the waste-to-energy incineration plant in Malešice.

To put our guests into the context of the plastic life-cycle: Jiří Kotek is present at the birth of the material, Vojtěch is the material’s assistant during its lifetime, and Robert and Aleš are involved at the end, at the funeral pyres of the plastic.

Vojtěch Vosecký, sees society’s goal to “reduce the total emission that we produce as humanity. And plastics play a big role in that.” And that “there is a lot that can be done about it, from a circular point of view, from a designer’s perspective, from a producer’s perspective.” He believes that “there is an overproduction, overconsumption of single use and often non-recyclable plastic, especially post-consumer packaging.” And although a lot of work and effort is being made here, in Europe, to resolve the situation, things are “especially [bad] if you go to Indonesia, or China, where there isn’t such effective waste management systems as here.”  In Europe, he believes that the “difficulties of recycling is a matter of price not technology.”

Vojtěch also warns that “we need to be careful with  plastic replacements, because often the cure can be even worse than the disease.” 

The priority according to Vojtěch “is not to lose control of our plastics and let them disappear into the environment… we need a circular economy from a business perspective, city perspective, and a household perspective, where we will be able to use plastics in more circular ways. Plastics can be designed and made to be recycled, or manufactured from recycled content.”

Vojtěch’s European-wide experience on best-practice in these matters has made very clear to him that the correct incentives must be in place in order to nurture success.  One of the biggest obstacles holding back progress in the implementation of circularity with plastics is landfill waste disposal. “Landfills are very cheap. So it’s about the national governments, whether they tax them or not. That is going to change in the Czech Republic soon, but we are behind other countries, such as Germany, who have already made these steps in the 90s.”  In addition to putting the appropriate incentives in place, Vojtěch reminds us that “in order to close the loop we need to incentivise producers to take responsibility behind business models, and [regarding recycling] we need to focus not on 30 or 40 percent collection, but 100 percent.”

As a scientist Robert Suchopa understands that by “using plastics, we can achieve mechanical properties that other materials cannot deliver.”  At the same time, he recognises the need for behavioural change in how we make, use and recycle plastics. Indeed, his own work at ORLEN Unipetrol gives him confidence that “from a kilo of plastic waste you can get 60, 70 percent of… value, either gas or gaseous or liquid phase [usable hydrocarbons]”. 

To achieve such recovery of value Robert is using the technique of pyrolysis. To explain the process simply, “Plastic waste is heated up, you get rid of the oxygen and at elevated temperatures, reactions occur to provide a hydrocarbon-rich product at the end of it. Based on what temperature we choose, we end up with either the lightest possible molecules, which are of gaseous phase, or if we reduce temperatures to about 600, 700 degrees, we end up with liquid hydrocarbon products. And then it is up to us what we do with those products, because they are basically the same chemicals (ethylene, propylene, benzene, etc) as petrochemical companies are used to refining and processing.” 

The advantage of Robert’s recycling method of pyrolysis is that it can deal with almost any plastic polymer, and is not overly sensitive to contamination.  The challenge is about investment and scale-use, as he explains: “My office is at ORLEN Unipetrol’s refinery in Litvínov, which is the largest refinery and petrochemical complex in  Central Europe. This complex alone crunches through 6 million tons of crude oil a year. From that we produce 5 million tons of fuel and million tons of petrochemicals. If we… replace 10 percent of our production with recycled material, we… are talking about producing a hundred thousand tons of petrochemicals out of waste. And for that, you would need to manage 250 000 tons of plastic waste, which is currently the whole of the yellow bin system in the Czech Republic. So, the appetite is there, but plastic [waste] is too decentralized to make it work.” Seemingly, Robert echoes Vojtěch’s call for collection of a greater percentage of plastic waste in order to run pyrolysis at an economic scale.

Jiří Kotek calls for all of us to take better responsibility of our plastic use, commenting that he is “sure that we don’t have, in the majority of applications, any better alternative to plastics. But what we have to change is our behaviour. Almost 40 percent of plastic production is used as packaging materials and there is the problem! So, we have to change our behaviour.” 

Amongst his other duties, Jiří is developing the use of microwave energy to recycle plastics.  Delving into his science background, he explained that “basically, we have two kinds of plastics, thermoplastics and thermosets. Thermoplastics make up the majority of packaging materials. They can be re-melted at elevated temperatures. This property is the basis of the first kind of recycling, so-called mechanical or material recycling, where the material is just re-melted and pelletized and the pellets are then reprocessed by conventional methods. It is the simplest way, however, there are two main requirements. The first is that the material has to be properly selected, just one material/polymer type, and at the same time it must be clean. And the main disadvantage is that during thermomechanical processing, the polymer molecule chains go through transitions that shorten the length of the macromolecules, thus deteriorating their properties.” In the case of, for example, PET bottles, many of the technological  problems have been resolved and methodology refined such that “we are  able to produce fully recycled PET bottles from old bottles and close the loop.” Similar success is currently made in recycling high-density polyethylene and low density polyethylenes and polypropylenes. But the feedstock must be ordered and clean.  “A second possibility is chemical recycling, where the polymer is decomposed into its basic units, monomers.” This is possible for most poly condensates, and for PET, and it doesn’t require such clean feedstock. “There are also methods of pyrolysis and gasification through pyrolysis that Robert mentions. And finally, if nothing else is possible, we can recuperate the energy from waste via incineration.”

This final destiny for plastic waste, that of its incineration and waste-to-energy recuperation, is the job of Aleš Bláha. He is a big proponent of responsible plastic use and, where possible, effective material recycling. By his own admission, his facilities should be a final port of call for plastics.  He advocates the production of “fewer types of polymer. Those, which are easily recycled.”  Currently “only about 20 to 30 percent of plastic collected in yellow bins can be recycled. 70 percent, maybe 80 percent, of it will be incinerated or land filled.” 

Clearly there is much still to do.  But the technology and will seem to be there.