At last month’s PRSE, the exhibitors included for the first time a number of chemical recycling companies. One of these was Neste, the Finnish oil refining and marketing company that is in the process of reinventing itself. A pioneer in the refinery space, the company is committed to transitioning away from the use of virgin fossil-based feedstocks in the future, when it will depend solely on renewables and circular feedstocks to produce its products.
Outi Teräs, whose role within this process is the commercialisation of the technologies through which this can be achieved gave a presentation in which she detailed the path and explained the choices taken by Neste. Sustainable Plastics visited the company’s stand in Amsterdam to learn more.
Chemical recycling, Outi pointed out, is a family of technologies, and Neste’s approach is a combination of liquefaction - ‘pyrolysis, hydrothermal, or any other process that produces a good oil-like end product’ - combined with refining. The refining ensures that the contaminants are removed and the chemical composition optimised. The end product is a drop-in material for the petrochemical industry to produce new plastics and chemicals.
“It's very similar to what we're doing in renewables as well whatever we're selling is not just a drop-in solution but that it's sustainable,” she said. “That’s our promise. And there's no compromise on production efficiency, product quality, or food safety or anything like that in subsequent links of the value chain. We are trying to solve the quality conundrum for everybody else.”
Neste’s focus is on the use of waste and residues, and one of its tenets in the development of its chemical recycling business has been feedstock flexibility. “We process plastics that have no where else to go,” said Outi.
The company’s role in the process is that of a refiner. The actual liquefaction process is done by a partner such as Alterra Energy, in the United States, that has developed proprietary pyrolysis technology, enabling the use of a very heterogeneous waste plastic stream. “This prevents the liquefaction process itself from becoming the bottleneck for processing - but then, of course, the embedded impurities that can't be sorted out or removed before liquefaction or during liquefaction must be tackled.” This is where Neste’s refining technologies come in, she explained. In this way, Neste can maximise the yields towards petrochemicals - “We can also recrack to process the heavier streams, cracking them into lighter fractions that are better suited for petrochemicals.”
The company is working to scale these recycling operations as efficiently as possible. Already, since the start in 2020, it has processed 3000 tonnes of local waste plastic in Finland, collaborating with several partners on the raw materials. In an ongoing project called PULSE, which stands for the pretreatment and upgrading of liquified waste plastic to scale up the circular economy, Neste is implementing technologies for expanding the capabilities for processing this in larger quantities.
More efficiency is achieved by integrating these technologies into the company’s Porvoo refinery in Finland, and reusing the existing refinery infrastructure.
“That makes a difference in our financing structure - it enables scale up because we're not building dedicated assets from day one, and of course, in terms of capital expenditure, the EU is also providing backing: we received a grant from the EU innovation fund for €135 million in January of this year to support us with this development,” she said, adding that, right now, the emphasis is on scaling and building liquefaction capacity.
The activities are projected to allow the company to phase out the use of virgin fossil feedstocks by the mid 2030s.
“We have been fully renewable in the Rotterdam and Singapore refineries from the get go; Porvoo has some renewable assets as well, but it still processes fossil-based fuels as well; but the waste plastic-derived oils are definitely a big part of the development as we move forward.”
Today, Neste has progressed much further with the use of renewable feedstocks than recycled ones, but the company is now striving to catch up using chemical recycling. Both will play a major role a big role in making plastics more sustainable and in transforming the industry overall.
One of the most important issues in chemical recycling is traceability. ISCC Plus certified, Neste also has a number of partnerships and projects running - including with Netherlands-based Circularise, which has developed a blockchain approach aimed at safeguarding sustainability and transparency in the plastics industry.
“The aim is to build trust. Claims need to be validated, because people need to feel confident that what is claimed is true. We need the brands that will ultimately be using the material in their products to be able to use these claims can confidently use these claims and put them on their packaging,” Outi emphasised.
However, the fact remains that chemical recycling does not yet count as recycling, at least in the EU.
That that recognition will come, seems clear, said Outi. But: “To make it official and to get all the definitions in place - all of this takes time.”
Clarity is needed if companies are to commit to making the major investments needed in chemical recycling to dare to invest, she continued. Clearly, such major uncertainties in the business environment are not conducive to creating a climate in which companies feel confident about making these investments.
She pointed to the chemical recycling project with pipe manufacturer Uponor, where production waste from Uponor - that cannot be recycled mechanically because of the cross linking - was liquefied by Wastewise Group, refined by Neste, turned into new polypropylene by Borealis after which goes back to Uponor to be made into new food contact approved pipes. The whole value chain is traceable via ISCC PLUS certified mass-balancing.
“It's taking something that today is mechanically not recyclable and transforming this into a food-contact product, eligible even for sensitive applications with high requirements, such as drinking water systems,” she said. “It’s a brilliant example of what we're talking about in chemical recycling.”