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New era of plastic recycling begins in Baytown

December 17, 2022

About 80 million pounds of plastic will be diverted away from landfills over the next year, thanks to a new unit in operation at ExxonMobil’s Baytown Complex—and that’s plastic that until recently was considered unrecyclable, according to the company.

Dave Andrew, vice president of new market development, said the new process opens up recycling to materials like bubble wrap, artificial turf, plastic cutlery and shrink wrap. It allow allows recycling of food packaging like potato chip bags that have layers of different kinds of plastic or even aluminum foil.

After a pilot plant ran for about a year, recycling about 15 million pounds, the larger unit had its first run this week, with production ramping up to full speed soon. The biggest lesson learned during the pilot process, Andrew said, was “how complicated the feed side of this process is. Actually doing advanced recycling is very much in our wheelhouse: it’s technology we know and understand and can manage it very well.”

It has been the upstream side that is the breakthrough.

That has required a whole set of collaborations with waste and recycling services and a joint venture called Cyclyx which built a facility in Baytown to prepare plastic for the new facility.

Cyclyx cleans plastic to the greatest extent possible, removing paper and contaminants, then shreds the plastic into small pieces to be taken to the new facility.

Natalie Martinez, North America Advanced Recycling commercial manager, said, “The first step is finding those different types of plastics, collecting them, and then we also test them to characterize them. We take samples of all the different feeds we have found, whether it’s a face mask, potato chip bag, lube oil bottle, whatever it may be — we bring samples into our lab where we characterize them to find out what kind of plastic they were made of.” They also look at the chemical composition.

After shredding at the offsite facility, the plastic goes into a hopper truck and is brought to the ExxonMobil Baytown facility and blown into a large silo. At maximum operation, the plant will need eight truckloads a day of plastic chips — the silo holds about 18 hours- worth.

Martinez said the chips are melted down and combined with other hydrocarbon fluids. This process is repeated several times, along with additional grinders, to eliminate any remain solids.“Then that material goes into a reactor in our existing facility and that’s where everything is heated to very high temperatures and the breakdown happens where you go from polypropylene down to basic molecular blocks,” she said.

From that point, it is processed into certified circular polymer. The end product from the Baytown plant is white/clear resin pellets that will be loaded into railcars for shipping to other companies that convert them into plastic products.

While indistinguishable from non-recycled plastic, the end product is more valuable, as companies want to be able to market their plastic products as being produced from recycled plastic. For this reason, Andrew said, ExxonMobil has created the “Exxtend” brand for its advanced recycling products.

Andrew said that while products that can currently be recycled mechanically could also be recycled using the new technology, that is not the preferred approach. “Our position is that if you can mechanically recycle, you should do that, because it’s lower energy, it’s easier and it’s a more efficient way of doing it.”

While the new unit has taken a long time to get where it is, its modular design means the same technology can be installed in other locations much more quickly. Possible future locations include Beaumont, Baton Rouge and Joliet, Illinois, as well as international sites in Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands and Singapore. ExxonMobil is also working with third parties to use the technology in other locations like Malaysia and Indonesia.

By Mark Fleming, Baytown Sun