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Exxon’s Baytown facility finds new ways to break down plastic as consumers demand better recycling

September 30, 2022

A stream of everyday plastics such as detergent containers, pill bottles and unsoiled diapers is already finding its way inside an ExxonMobil lab in Baytown, where the company readies to launch one of the continent’s largest advanced recycling facilities. 

Ziploc bags filled with many-colored pieces of torn-up plastic, separated by type, sat inside Tupperware bins in a room beside the lab last week. A plastic rope was reduced into a pile of neon blue fibers for testing.

Each sample must be small enough to put through a machine that grinds it into fine particles. Then, Exxon’s engineers analyze it, identifying the chemicals within to see if they can be chemically broken down inside the site’s new recycling unit.

The unit in Baytown is on the cutting edge of an emerging industry that is racing to create new ways to recycle plastic and keep pace with soaring consumer demand for sustainable packaging. Driving that demand is a new wave of pledges made by retail brands, which are promising their customers that more of their products will use recycled plastic instead of new plastic. More than 80 brands have made firm commitments to use at least 15 percent recycled plastic by 2025, according to a McKinsey report published in May. Companies such as Exxon, Chevron Phillips Chemical and LyondellBasell are meeting that demand with significant investments in advanced recycling technologies that are advancing the industry's ability to break down and reuse so-called "hard-to-recycle" plastics. It’s a massive shift for companies accustomed to working with oil and gas companies to buy feedstocks – the chemical building blocks of plastics. Now they’re branching into new territory, working with waste management companies to buy and process plastic waste.

Dave Andrew, Exxon’s vice president of new market development, said he spent most of his career understanding what contaminants of crude must be separated out — a process tried and true. Waste plastic feedstocks present new challenges.

“Literally we get bales of plastic waste with a bicycle or lead-acid battery stuck in the middle of it,” he said. “So we’ve got to work through all of those issues, which means consumer education and sorting. It's creating a whole new value chain.”Today, only about 10 percent of plastics get recycled because of those challenges and because many plastics are difficult process. U.S. companies have collectively invested nearly $7 billion on advanced recycling projects since 2017, with the potential to divert over 15 billion pounds of used plastic from landfills annually, according to the American Chemistry Council, a D.C.-based trade group for the petrochemical industry. 

Coca-Cola Southwest Bottling, for example, recently launched a new bottling facility in Houston and is the first U.S. bottler to use recycled plastic in half of every new bottle it produces. Now, many manufacturers companies want plastic-makers such as Exxon to show a similar commitment. 

Like the push from consumers, regulations are also leading manufacturers to move more quickly. A California law approved in June requires all packaging in the state to be recyclable or compostable by 2032.

Exxon has already recycled 11 million pounds of plastic waste at its Baytown petrochemical complex since it launched a test program at the facility last year. The company plans to launch the full-scale unit, capable of processing 60 million pounds annually, in December.

The initial effort has been so commercially successful — Exxon sold recycled plastics to Berry Global, Amcor and Sealed Air for use in their food packaging — that it plans to build 14 similar units at its chemical manufacturing sites worldwide, capable of processing 1 billion pounds of plastic waste annually by 2027.

“The demand for the products far exceeds the near-term supply,” Andrew, Exxon’s vice president of sustainability, said. “And so we're racing to supply more products. The brands are hungry for it, they've made commitments to their shareholders, they’ve made commitments to their customers.”

The chasm between demand for recycled plastics and supply is allowing Exxon and other plastic makers to charge a premium for recycled plastics, Andrew said, which will help companies such as Exxon invest in more units and rapidly expand supply. 

For its part, Chevron Phillips Chemical said it aims to produce 1 billion pounds of recycled polyethylene plastic by 2030 as the industry takes off.

“It's a nascent industry evolving faster than anything I’ve seen before,” said Ron Abbott, Chevron Phillips Chemical's Sustainability Technology Manager. “I'm very excited about what it could become.” 

LyondellBasell, too, is experimenting with its own advanced recycling technology at its pilot plant in Ferrara, Italy. The company aims to produce two million metric tons annually of plastic made with recycled plastic feedstocks and plant-based feedstocks, such as starch and cellulose, by 2030. 

The effort to feed the growing demand for recycled plastic isn’t cheap. McKinsey projected recycled plastics could satisfy 4 to 8 percent of total polymer demand by 2030, requiring $40 billion in capital investment over the next decade.

As an industry, plastic makers committed to recycling 100 percent of the packing they make by 2040, said Joshua Baca, American Chemistry Council's VP of plastics, noting brands like Wendy’s, Warby Parker and Black and Decker are already using recycled plastics in their products. The goal, he said, is to make single-use plastic “a relic of the past.” 

By Amanda Drane, Houston Chronicle
Exxon's Baytown facility finds new ways to break down plastic as consumers demand better recycling