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Q&A: How leading technology and cross-sectoral collaboration strengthen plastic circular economy sustainability

Hear from our experts on how developing technologies and cross-sectoral collaboration can improve circular economy sustainability across the plastics value chain.

By Shell Catalysts & Technologies on Apr 19, 2021

With the invention of Bakelite (by the Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland), the world’s first entirely synthetic plastic, the groundwork was set for a burgeoning material that would go on to have a profound impact on industry, humanity, technology and the environment. The hygienic properties of plastics have influenced their use in medical tools and supplies like surgical gloves, IV tubes and catheters. Due to desirable characteristics like moisture resistance, durability, light weighing and pliability, plastics have had immense applications for the transportation and shipping sectors. Plastic insulation and sealants have helped to make homes and industrial processes more energy efficient.

While all of these applications point to the beneficial nature of plastic materials, they have not come without environmental challenges. Solving these challenges while retaining the advantages of the material for economic, medical and infrastructural purposes is a key focus of circular economy solutions for plastics.

Shell Catalysts & Technologies is developing plastic circularity solutions that create the potential to substitute virgin feeds by enabling the repurposing and upgrading of plastic waste for reuse in the plastic value chain.

Ed Holgate, Global Petrochemical Catalyst Marketing Manager, and Gavin Gray, Senior Commercial Sales Manager – Specialty Catalysts, offer their unique perspectives below on the role Shell Catalysts & Technologies will play in developing plastic circularity solutions. They discuss some of the most exciting technological innovations in this space as well as the importance of cross-sectoral collaboration to address systemic challenges for the plastics industry.

Q: What is the circular economy and why is it important?

Gavin Gray: Circular economy principles extend beyond just plastics. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation states: “A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.”1 Plastic circularity focuses on designing out waste and pollution from the plastic sector specifically while reducing the use of virgin feeds and revitalising post-industrial or post-consumer plastic for continued use.

Ed Holgate: The circular economy is important because it directly impacts the amount of pollution in landfills and oceans, limits the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere and extends the life cycle of materials that are instrumental to human life. Shell Catalysts & Technologies’ work in plastic circularity is a perfect example of how our organisation backs up the commitment to Make Every Molecule Matter.

Q: What are the key challenges and opportunities associated with developing the circular economy?

Gavin Gray: When analysing plastic circularity challenges, it is helpful to discuss the four general pathways that plastics can take after use and the opportunities and complications that each pathway creates. One all too visible route is the escape into the environment through littering. Capturing this waste stream and preventing its release into the environment, rivers and oceans is perhaps the most important plastic circularity gap that requires closure.

Another pathway is depicted by plastics that end up in a landfill. Plastic decomposition times vary depending on the properties of the plastic products but ultimately result in the creation of greenhouse gases and creates possible local environmental pollution issues. Generally speaking, the more that we can redirect post-use plastic back into the plastics value chain, instead of ending up in a landfill, the better.

A third path plastics might take after use involves waste-to-energy technologies that convert post-use plastic into energy through incineration. These solutions can substitute burning fossil fuels and reduce the need for landfills but can also release greenhouse gases as well as dioxins, toxic metals and acid gases into the atmosphere.

Finally, and this is the area where Shell Catalysts & Technologies perceives a great opportunity, post-use plastics can be deconstructed and reintroduced back into the chemicals value chain through cutting-edge chemicals recycling and plastics regeneration technologies.

Learn more about Leveraging innovation in Catalyst Technology for Cleaner Energy Solutions

Ed Holgate: One of the most exciting opportunities in delivering plastic circularity solutions is the creation of a fully integrated value chain that works across industries. For example, municipalities and other organisations struggle to gather, organise and process post-consumer plastic. Even if they achieve solving the post-use collection problem in isolation, they still face the challenge of accessing viable and sustainable disposal channels.

Solutions to post-use problems will likely require cross-sectoral coordination, and in some cases, the creation of new integrated value chains. Achieving a truly circular value chain requires innovation and will be dependent on extensive collaboration across a diverse range of resources including chemical producers, consumers, waste collection and destruction managers and technology solution providers.

We believe policymakers, plastic manufacturers and consumers themselves all need to pull in the same direction. It starts with consumers understanding how to properly dispose of the plastic products they require so that they can be collected and separated accordingly. Waste management companies and local governments will play a critical role here in conjunction with the creation of industry partnerships and alliances.

Q: What specific plastic circularity challenges are Shell Catalysts & Technologies trying to solve?

Ed Holgate: Shell Catalysts & Technologies is focused on the development of solutions that convert collected post-use plastics into an economic feedstock solution based on recycled materials. That feedstock can then be processed through a steam cracker to produce plastic building blocks efficiently and sustainably. The expansion of these new value chains drives the circular solution by displacing conventional cracker feeds with these recycled feedstocks.

Gavin Gray: With the development of these new technologies, we are focused on helping both customers in our incumbent chemical producer markets and new customers in potentially untapped markets. Shell Catalysts & Technologies is applying its deep expertise in both catalyst and process technology development to solve this problem with the aim of driving up sustainability across the chemicals sector and playing a major role in solving the plastic waste challenge.

Q: What do SC&T customers stand to gain from the innovations taking place within this group?

Ed Holgate: Action in this space is not necessarily motivated solely by economics. Yes, economics matter but when we have spoken with leading ethylene cracker producers they have emphasised the major risk to their social license to operate and their commitments to creating a more sustainable plastics ecosystem.

With that said, due to regulatory action by governments across the world, producers in various markets may have to pay levies on material not containing recycled waste. These may be mitigated by partnering with Shell Catalyst & Technologies to capitalise on the technological advances we have developed in this space.

Gavin Gray: Our customers also benefit from Shell Catalysts & Technologies’ proximity to wider Shell and the steam cracking expertise that our organisation has amassed over decades of leadership in this area. Steam cracking, for those who don’t know, is an essential process that breaks down hydrocarbons to produce olefins which go on to constitute the basis of a myriad of polymer products used in everyday materials. Our customers not only benefit from this owner-operator expertise, but also from an ever-expanding portfolio of leading petrochemical catalysts.

Ed Holgate: Steam cracker producers are likely to be placed under increasing regulatory pressure and are searching for solutions, equipment and catalysts that enhance the sustainability of their operations. First mover advantage has the potential to enhance the competitive edge of chemical producers by mitigating the exposure to the increasingly regulated landscape. Shell Catalysts & Technologies is externally focused particularly in this area which requires the creation of new and integrated value chains. We actively seek to strengthen existing and develop new relationships across the value chain that not only enhance customer value but also accelerate this technology revolution.

On the road to plastic circularity

No one organisation has all of the answers or solutions for how plastic circularity will be achieved. Global plastic production increased to nearly 360 million metric tons in 2018 and is projected to triple by 2050.2 This highlights the importance of collaboration and working together to develop more sustainable plastic production processes.

Shell Catalysts & Technologies remains committed to seeing circularity through, starting the conversations that get us there and leading the technological and molecular innovation that will be key to achieving that end. If you’re interested in staying connected and up-to-date with plastic circularity developments, subscribe to our monthly energy transition newsletter.

“What Is the Circular Economy?” Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017, www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/what-is-the-circular-economy.
2 Ian Tiseo . “Topic: Plastics Industry Worldwide.” Statista, 27 Jan. 2021, www.statista.com/topics/5266/plastics-industry/.