Plastic circularity

How I am working towards the scalability of a circular plastic economy

Learn about the technical challenges behind processing waste plastics, upgrading technology and observations behind accelerated collaborations.

By Chris Rausch on Aug 8, 2022

Chris Rausch is Senior Technical Analyst, New Business Development at Shell Catalysts & Technologies, based in Houston, Texas. He has worked at Shell for three years; prior to that time, Chris worked in the chemicals industry in operations and technology development roles. 

In this interview on “How I Make Every Molecule Matter”, Chris discusses the technical challenges behind processing waste plastics, his role in the development of an upgrading technology and his observations behind accelerated collaborations to enable a circular plastic economy.

1. Please tell us about your day-to-day work.

I’m responsible for technology strategy and commercialisation of projects in plastic circularity, renewable fuels and digitalisation as part of the Shell Catalysts & Technologies (SC&T) New Business Development Team. I work on the economic and technical evaluation to support the business case behind our projects. The projects I support target commercialisation in the near and mid-term and require business case development and intellectual property considerations, which allows me the opportunity to work across many groups within both Shell Catalysts & Technologies and broader Shell.

I am currently working on a project to enable the circular plastic economy. It is special to me because I genuinely believe it will impact how plastics are managed and recycled. The market is still developing, so it is an exciting time to be involved.

Learn about the Shell Renewable Refining Process (SRRP)

2. Could you elaborate on the plastic circularity project?

Shell Catalysts & Technologies has several different technologies that apply can to what we call the upgrading of plastic-derived oils. The Shell Recovered Plastics Upgrader (SRPU) builds upon this solid foundation. SRPU adds a few new aspects to address the growing demand from the industry to introduce waste plastic into the refining and petrochemical value chain.

My role is both internal and customer-facing, so I have the pleasure of working with our technical experts within Shell Catalysts & Technology and broader Shell to develop technology solutions and interface with potential customers and industry groups to ensure our developments are meeting their needs.

I work with partners that take waste plastics and break them down into plastic-derived oils, an essential step before introducing them into the value chain. Through a series of steps, the SRPU technology prepares the raw plastic-derived oil before being fed to downstream refining or petrochemical units. Without this critical upgrading step, the scalability of waste plastics into the refining or petrochemical value chain becomes challenging due to various contaminants in the plastic-derived oil that cannot be easily managed within existing assets.

Read more: How I shape hydrocracking products for petrochemicals and plastic circularity

3. What other types of innovations need to happen to support the plastic circularity economy?

One of the most significant hurdles in the scalability of a plastic circularity market is the access to waste plastic and processing it into a plastic-derived oil.

I think we are all familiar with mechanical recycling. You toss your plastic into your green bin and hope recyclers manage it properly. The problem is it is not always the case, which can lead to contamination of rivers, lakes or oceans. Mechanical recycling works quite well. However, waste plastics can only be mechanically recycled a number of times before the plastic becomes too contaminated to be reused.

In chemical recycling, the waste plastic, which may include polyethene, polypropylene, polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), is broken down to its simple hydrocarbon building blocks. The resulting plastic-derived oil is more similar to traditional crude oil and chemical feedstocks through chemical recycling. This is why it can be reintroduced into the value chain following the critical upgrading step.

There are many suppliers of plastic-derived oil in the market. Even though the market is growing exponentially, economies of scale have not yet been achieved. Through the development and commercialisation of the SRPU technology, Shell Catalysts & Technologies' provides our clients with an upgrading solution. The upgrading solution processes a wide range of plastic-derived oils allowing for chemical producers or refineries to expand the specifications of plastic-derived oil processed through their value chains. By developing the specification on plastic-derived oils that can be processed, a broader range of solid waste plastic utilisation helps improve the supply side of this evolving market.

Discover: Energy transition pathways

4. The plastic circularity economy is a rather new market. How are organisations navigating this developing market?

Coming out of COVID, we've seen a rapid acceleration of customers looking to transition to a cleaner energy future. We see our customers and partners taking more risks than they have in the past regarding investment and technology decisions to expedite their energy transition journey.

The exciting parts also make it challenging. Since it is a developing market, it is difficult to predict how competitors and customers will act and how the regulatory landscape will change over time.

I screen, scout and identify technologies that will improve the plastic circularity that Shell Catalysts & Technology can offer to both Shell and the third-party market by forming partnerships or utilising new technologies developed by research organisations. For this reason, we believe the SRPU platform of technologies will continue to evolve in the coming years and adapt to the changing needs of the market.

5. What is your outlook on plastic circularity in the coming years?

Unlike the refining or chemical market , the plastic circularity market is not commoditised. Companies are making decisions for different reasons, making it a fun market in which to be involved. Some customers have access to molecules. Some customers have access to technology. We see many companies forming partnerships and relationships to limit risk as much as possible. We don't know which horse will win the race, so you have to place many bets and be involved in many different things.

I continue to be motivated by the developments I see made by my colleagues. There tends to be a great deal of collaboration rather than competition because everyone is trying to make plastic circularity work. The space has exploded, and it is a fun time to be involved in the market. In the coming decades, I hope our efforts support the circular economy by scaling chemical plastics recycling through the continued development and commercialisation of the Shell Recovered Plastics Upgrader (SRPU) technology.

Keep pace with the energy transition in the short- medium- and long-term by downloading the technology journey