EXCLUSIVE WITH PLASTIC ENERGY’S CARLOS MONREAL: Plastic: going round in circles

EXCLUSIVE WITH PLASTIC ENERGY’S CARLOS MONREAL: Plastic: going round in circles

October 22, 2019
Nick Bradley

Around 25.8 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated in the EU every year yet less than 30% is being collected for recycling, representing a huge loss of potential resources as well as a massive stain on the environment. Chemical recycling, though, could complement mechanical recycling and close the loop in the plastics sector. Plastic Free World speaks with Plastic Energy’s Carlos Monreal, one of the leaders of the movement, about giving this waste stream a new lease of life in a circular economy

Scrutiny of plastics production and the practices of conglomerate plastics users especially has never been more intense. We’re now all too familiar with the dire impact of plastic pollution on the environment – and even human health – but it’s only recently that ‘plastic’ and ‘climate change’ have been uttered in the same breath.

Credit for that could be down to a recent report published by the Washington DC-based Center for International Environmental Law which warned that, at current levels, greenhouse gas emissions from the entire plastic life-cycle – from extraction to disposal – threaten the ability of the global community to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C. The findings gained significant press coverage and put plastics right at the center of the entire climate change debate, now referred to by many as a climate emergency.

No sign of letting up
Perhaps more worrying is that the study further highlights that our use of fossil fuel-based plastic is predicted to increase in the years to come. By 2050, the authors proffer, the global plastic footprint could be akin to 615 coal plants running at full capacity – more than three times that of today’s equivalent 189 500MW stations.

If you think the current situation is bad, things could get a whole lot worse.

Of course, solutions to stem this toxic plastic tide are many and varied, but short of turning off the plastic tap – which some suggest isn’t feasible nor necessary for all polymer-based products – none are overnight fixes and certainly none, taken in solace, are anything like a silver bullet.

Certainly, we can be more sustainable when it comes to the extraction of raw materials, the transportation of feed-stocks, in the plastics production process and even in the manufacture of plastic products, all of which are parts of the life-cycle of this ubiquitous material. But the entire system – from back to front – needs to be more sustainable. And that’s why waste management and disposal, while presented with seemingly unsurmountable challenges at what is ostensibly the end of the chain, are also presented with opportunities to close the loop and irrevocably disrupt the status quo. It’s the latter that spurred Carlos Monreal to put on his thinking cap.

A better way of dealing with plastic
Monreal, an engineer by training, recalls an encounter in 2011 with one of his Swedish contacts who alerted him to just how much plastic was being sent to landfill in his home country of Spain. That was an eye-opener to the now CEO of Plastic Energy. Surely, he imagined at the time, there had to be a better way of dealing with this waste rather than simply burying or burning the problem?

Landfills and incineration are rarely sustainable. The biggest driver for me was recognizing the damage being done to our planet and the impact on the generations to come

“Landfills and incineration are rarely sustainable,” begins Monreal, whose concerns about the issue of plastic pollution were founded long before it hit the headlines as a result of documentaries such as Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II and Craig Leeson’s A Plastic Ocean, the latter of which featured Monreal’s company as one of the potential solutions. “The biggest driver for me was recognizing the damage being done to our planet and the impact on the generations to come,” he confirms.

Monreal subsequently started looking into whether there could be life for plastic once it became waste – into technologies and processes that could give this hitherto trash a second life. As it materialized, that would encompass employing chemical recycling to transform it into a different hydrocarbon for the creation of new plastics or even alternative fuels.

Undoubtedly, some may question the sense in replacing one polymer with another. But with the appropriate and responsible waste management practices and networks in place, the plastic waste ‘upcycled’ via the Plastic Energy process – which was initially the brainchild of Cynar until further fine-tuning and optimization by Plastic Energy – can be infinitely recycled, keeping it away from landfill, incineration or from leaking into the environment ever again. “Our concept is specifically targeted at end-of-life plastics that currently cannot be mechanically recycled,” Monreal reveals, “so mixed, contaminated, multi-layered, etc. In tandem with mechanical recycling, what we’re doing with chemical recycling is creating a full circular economy of plastics.”

The Plastic Energy process
Hydrocarbons produced in the Plastic Energy process, known as TACOIL, are being used as a feed-stock to create new virgin quality-like plastics (closed-loop Plastic2Plastic). “What we’re doing is tremendously satisfying because it benefits the environment and communities and is also a viable business proposition,” Monreal continues. “There aren’t many activities that tick all of these boxes.”

What we’re doing is tremendously satisfying because it benefits the environment and communities and is also a viable business proposition. There aren’t many activities that tick all of these boxes

Chemical recycling is an increasingly hot topic in the waste management sector with numerous trials and successes reported over the past 12 months. But Plastic Energy’s activities have advanced to an exciting level of maturity, albeit Monreal admits they have deliberately kept a low profile in terms of announcements while gaining the requisite real-world experience. “We have had fully operational, industrial and commercialized plants up and running for three years (in Spain’s Almeira and Seville), so our solution is proven,” says Monreal, alluding to the fact that other projects, while generating column inches, are generally still at the pilot stage. “Beyond being proven, our experience with the technology enables us to produce a stable and optimal output – essential to our off-takers – which requires a very fine understanding of the feed-stock.”

So, it’s not merely a case of doing something constructive with the waste, but creating a hydrocarbon that will have an industry demand – and importantly from an industry that demands the best-possible product? “Exactly,” asserts Monreal. “This has enabled us to sign MoUs with large chemical and petrochemical companies both in Europe and further afield for large-scale projects. The strong interest we are receiving from these companies is another validation that our product represents what they are looking for.”

The circularity of the resultant polymer, the Certified Circular Polymers, has even been validated and certified by the ISCC+ throughout the entire value chain, not just by Plastic Energy but also through to SABIC, Unilever, Tupperware, Viventions and Walki Group.

Plastic Energy is currently processing thousands of tonnes each year with a yield-to-mass volume of 85%. And it takes 18 months to build a plant. But now that Monreal and others in the value chain are confident of the end-product, Plastic Energy can simply copy and paste the model anywhere in the world. “By 2023, we expect to build the capacities for 20 plants globally,” he says.

Theoretically our process could take ocean plastics but it is a plastic with additional challenges so we’re not currently processing it

This is potentially good news in respect of the millions of tonnes of plastic leaking into the environment every year and although a lot of media attention tends to focus on ocean plastic, Monreal says it’s vitally important to prevent this type of harmful leakage from reaching the oceans in the first place. “Theoretically our process could take ocean plastics,” he says, “but it is a plastic with additional challenges so we’re not currently processing it. Nonetheless, a project close to our hearts is to adapt our solution to allow for the conversion of this ocean pollutant. Practically, it is however much better to develop the right infrastructure on land to prevent the waste leakage – to stop it at the source.”

Environmental trade-offs? 
There are, of course, some naysayers when it comes to chemical recycling, who believe there have to be environmental trade-offs somewhere along the line. Monreal has clearly crunched his numbers in this regard. “From an environmental perspective, the latest life-cycle analysis (LCA) from independent research and consultancy organisation CE Delft indicates that chemical recycling is particularly attractive for streams that cannot be recycled mechanically – those that are incinerated or landfilled – and saves energy from the reduction in oil extraction,” he says. “For chemical recycling of recycling discards and DKR-350 [mixed plastics], the resulting impact is estimated to be -0.2 to -0.8 tonnes of C02 equivalent per tonne input. CE Delft also highlights that an LCA analysis does not account for all the benefits that chemical recycling represents.”

To the doubters, Monreal is keen to stress that chemical recycling does not burn the plastics but melts them in an oxygen-free environment. “It upgrades (or ‘upcycles’) the plastic through the conversion into the original monomers in each process of recycling, making it eternally safe and re-usable, even as a food-grade product. This effectively means that chemical recycling does not discharge dioxin, does not create residual toxic waste and contributes to the improvement of recycling, sustainable waste management as well as the decarbonization of the economy.”

As Andreas Merkl observed in his report, The Next Wave: Investment Strategies for Plastic Free Seas, waste management can do its job only if waste treatment technologies are substantially improved. Where technical innovation is concerned, the CEO of Ocean Conservancy insists the past is a poor predictor of the future – great opportunities exist today to accelerate the commercialization and performance of new technologies, which emphasise principles of circularity – waste reduction, recycling and waste re-purpose. Chemical recycling is noteworthy in this regard.

Widespread roll-out is another matter entirely though. While Plastic Energy is already working with one of the world’s leading chemical processors in the form of SABIC, Monreal’s business model is flexible enough due to the modularity of the plants to cater to customers small and large and anyone in between. The SABIC project is a large-scale chemical recycling facility designed to create the optimal output to feed its industrial plants and create clean recycled plastic out of end-of-life plastic waste. In contrast, an agreement with the Indonesian province of West Java has been cemented to build five chemical recycling plants. “This MoU was signed by the Governor or West Java, Ridwan Kamil, and follows campaigns – including by the UN’s Clean Seas, the Global Plastic Action Partnership and Our Ocean Conference – to reduce plastic pollution and, in particular, plastics reaching the ocean around Indonesia.” [Indonesia is second only to China when it comes to leaking plastic into the sea.]

Cases in point
The Indonesian waste management industry is still in its infancy so there are challenges for Monreal and his team, including but not limited to infrastructure development. “But we’re exploring partnerships with a range of public and private sector organizations to address these challenges and to facilitate the construction of these plants, which will primarily produce alternative fuels, and to make West Java a showcase for the rest of Indonesia. We also have a plant in Tenerife that will act as a model for other islands wanting to solve their waste plastic problems.”

Some plastics that could be recycled aren’t as a result of various contaminations and downgrading, and plastics that cannot be recycled end up in the recycling bin

The overwhelming feeling is that chemical recycling has the potential to flip the traditional recycling system on its head, although Monreal is the first to acknowledge that a sizeable problem he and other proponents face is the lack of awareness and harmonization regarding the sorting of waste, as well as a lack of alignment between collection/sorting systems and recyclers. This, he feels, creates a counterproductive scenario, the upshot being it has led to low recycling rates for plastics. “Some plastics that could be recycled aren’t as a result of various contaminations and downgrading, and plastics that cannot be recycled end up in the recycling bin,” laments Monreal. “We will need harmonization at the European level on recycling and we can expect more and more plastic to be added to the recycling bin to account for the new technologies that can recycle them and effectively increase the recycling rates.”

Despite these hurdles, Plastic Energy appears ahead of the chemical recycling game, although the picture is constantly subject to change, with new ideas and technologies materializing all of the time. “But any of these fresh concepts will need to be tested and that – as we know – takes time,” says Monreal. “Our technology team has been working on our process for 10 years and we’ve had industrial and commercial plants for the past three years. In the short to medium term, we need to roll out solutions that work – from my point of view, that’s chemical and mechanical recycling, the two complementing one another.

Monreal also accepts that Plastic Energy is a relatively small company while the need to develop truly effective recycling solutions is huge. “The challenge for us is to remain very focused and wherever we are going to build a plant to educate the administration in order to be able to provide the right regulations for the industry to represent a solution.

Plastic2Plastic according to EU definitions is part of recycling, however there are still some questions about whether it counts in the recycling targets – something that the Netherlands has already legislated

Where does chemical recycling fit in?
“As we’re a new industry, there are discussions revolving around how we categorize our activity,” Monreal notes. “Plastic2Plastic according to EU definitions is part of recycling, however there are still some questions about whether it counts in the recycling targets – something that the Netherlands has already legislated. Given that chemical recycling requires large investments, we need clear regulations acknowledging the benefits of this new solution to be able to expand further. Furthermore, if Europe fully starts dealing with its own end-of-life plastic instead of exporting it to developing markets and adding to the pollution there, it would lead to faster development of solutions here.”

The tide is patently changing in Europe, certainly in respect of single-use plastics, and Monreal believes the policy discussions within the EU on the Plastics Strategy and the Circular Economy Package demonstrate a real awareness of the plastics problem. “Although we are supporting both directives and we think they are great steps, we need to make sure that the media and public pressure does not create a ‘plasticphobia’,” he says. “While we think it is important to replace or reduce plastic products when it can be done, it is also important to conduct all of the analysis necessary (LCA) to look at the impact of any new product before making a final decision. Vitally, it should go together with better waste management and recycling, and that’s what the Circular Economy Package is aiming at.”

Monreal welcomes the Package and its new recycling target of 55% by 2030, as well as its openness to the potential of new technologies such as chemical recycling to address the problem. “But I am currently rather sceptical about how we will manage to reach these targets by 2030 given that these new technologies are only just now starting to be discussed and it will unfortunately take another one or two years to give them the appropriate regulatory frame,” he says.

“If I were in charge, I would ensure that chemical recycling was counted in the recycling targets. I would also introduce consistent EU policy on waste management so that end-of-life plastic can be extracted and turned back into something of value instead of being burned or buried, or even worse exported to countries that don’t have the infrastructure to address it properly. Most of all, though, I would invest in building the necessary recycling infrastructure within the EU to deal with our plastics.”

Plastic-free world?
Reflecting on the overall picture, though, Monreal is encouraged by developments far and wide in recent times, whether it be the continued media interest keeping the agenda in focus, regulatory pressure, campaigning, heightening consumer awareness or the sustainability efforts from plastics producers and big plastics users, albeit he feels we will never have a plastic-free world. Plastic still has too many benefits. “But with the collaboration of the whole value chain, we are convinced that we will live in a plastic waste-free society,” he concludes. “There is a groundswell of support now for reducing plastic pollution on the global stage from industry, NGOs and a growing number of governments. The message is as clear as crystal and the younger generation is especially vociferous addressing these environmental issues. And the marketplace is shifting entirely as demand for change, for more recycling and for better products grows. I’m optimistic we can tackle the problem, but our response does need to be swift and it needs to be decisive to prevent this whole problem from going past the point of no return.”

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