Does the Chemical Industry Need a Musk

For some, the thought of Elon Musk running a polymers plant would be…….unsettling. A chemical complex is safety critical on a nuclear scale, the result of more than a century of trial and, on occasion, painful error. “Evolution not revolution” is a common mantra among chemical CEOs.

Despite FMCG companies jumping up and down for sustainable materials and PR teams at chemical companies in overdrive, there’s no getting away from the feeling that chemical recycling is moving at a snail’s pace.

“There’s a slightly different angle to the automotive industry but having said that disruption is required,” said Tim Stedman, CEO of Agilyx, which has developed a chemical recycling technology. “It’s very difficult talking to others looking at this industry from the outside where the incumbents have the most to benefit from getting this right, but they’re not spending the money.”

Although the existing network of crackers and refineries can work with pyrolysis-derived feedstock, the plastics industry may not be in a massive hurry to jeopardise decades and decades of investment in steel and capacity.

There are other factors in play.

According to Stedman, the industry got a bit too fixated on the fun part: tinkering in the lab and coming up with a way to break down plastic waste back into its raw materials that can be used to make more virgin-grade material. They overlooked the grubby bit where you need to source waste and process it. In the circular economy, the sourcing and processing parts are as important as the conversion and purification.

“The real issue is how on earth do you get hold of the material to put into the system in the first place,” said Stedman, a former Trinseo and ExxonMobil executive who joined Agilyx in 2020. “What’s been really important in the past couple of years is the shift in focus from conversion, yields and scale to the realisation that all of that is irrelevant if you don’t have feed.”

Supplying a small chemical recycling facility with feedstock is doable but if your ambition is millions of tons, you need to be thinking completely differently, he added. “It’s been quite surprising for me that it’s taken the industry so long to realise that. However, now that’s front and centre.”

Recovery rates remain low: only 10-15% of waste from a material recovery facility. In some cities, the figure remains below 5%, he said.

It’s more than a decade since Agilyx developed a technology to convert distressed polystyrene plastics and foams back into usable and tradable styrene, the foundation for a host of materials from insulation (EPS) to LEGO bricks (ABS). It was only last year when it announced a deal with Toyo Styrene, which is building a 10-ton per day chemical recycling facility using Agilyx’s depolymerization process.

“We do have a lot of projects that are being worked on,” Stedman said. “These are chemical processes. They take time to actually develop, permit and construct, and so they are much longer projects.”

It’s much more straightforward on the mechanical side, where things are moving more quickly.

Two years ago, Agilyx with Exxon as a minority partner took a step back into the world of processing. Its Cyclyx waste plastic solutions arm aims to hoover up usable waste from a network of companies. Members include pharma groups to artificial turf makers looking for a sustainable end of life for waste material.

That in turned spawned the 10-90 brand, a mission within Cyclyx to build supply chains. That’s something the chemical industry has found much easier to embrace.

LyondellBasell has got on board and there’s been a threefold increase in volumes since it launched a year ago. Plans for Cyclyx’s first sorting and processing facility have been accelerated from an original 40,000 metric ton capacity to 150,000, the cost rising to $100 million.

While the aim is to build many more, it’s still a drop in the ocean relative to the 400 million tons of waste plastic.

“We’ve got a long way to go, absolutely,” Stedman said.

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