How Does The Circular Economy Work?
By using mechanical and advanced recycling techniques, plastic can be used again and again…and again.
We believe that one of the keys to a (Real)ationship is the sharing of insights and best practices. So, here, we get real about what we’ve learned in this increasingly important space, how we’re driving change, and what it all means to you.
What is the global plastic waste issue?
Plastics offer vital benefits to society. However, in some places, waste management and traditional recycling infrastructure do not exist, or plastic waste is not managed appropriately. As a result, plastic waste can end up as litter.
Plastics do not belong in our oceans, rivers or landscapes. They do belong in homes, hospitals, schools and businesses, where, every day, they deliver benefits to hundreds of millions of people around the world.
What is driving change?
Because the disposal of end-of-life plastics has become a global problem, legislators are requiring higher rates of plastic recycling and the use of more recycled content. For example, the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s National Recycling Goal targets a recycling rate of 50% by 2030, and California law requires companies to use 15, 25 and 50% post-consumer resin in bottles by 2022, 2025 and 2030 respectively.
But legislation isn’t the only driver: converters and brand owners are making pledges on plastics, and consumers expect brands to make it easy for them to make more sustainable choices.
What is Shell doing about plastic waste?
Shell’s responses include:
- Using plastic waste as a chemical feedstock: Shell has an ambition to use one million tonnes of plastic waste a year in its global chemicals plants by 2025 and is investing across the plastic value chain to achieve this ambition. Using a technique called pyrolysis, plastic waste is used to produce chemicals that can be used to make plastics again. Shell wants to expand the use of this technology at its chemical plants in North America, Europe and Asia.
- Improving packaging sustainability: Shell Lubricants, which makes and sells engine and industrial oils, is reducing, reusing and recycling packaging across its supply chains and exploring different and more sustainable packaging options.
- Working with converters: Shell Polymers is actively working with converters to develop plastic packaging that is thinner, stronger, and designed for recyclability
- Collaborating to tackle plastic waste: Shell is a founding member of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. This not-for-profit organization has committed $1.5 billion over five years to help end plastic waste in the environment.
Shell’s activities include:
- offering a range of biodegradable and carbon-neutral lubricants that are made at solar-powered facilities using sustainable biobased raw materials and packaged using 40% recycled plastic;
- completely removing single-use plastic bags at more than 1,000 Shell-owned service stations (15% of the total);
- making its UK service stations 100% free of plastic cutlery; and
- opening its first retail station built completely with eco-bricks made from plastic waste.
Does the new Shell Polymers plant have plastic circularity credentials?
Yes! At our polyethylene plant in Monaca, Pennsylvania, we have pioneered several circularity-related features, including:
- 10 miles of underground piping that has a high content of recycled plastic; and
- roads that contain waste plastic equivalent to three million grocery bags.
In addition, Shell Polymers is collaborating with local groups to encourage education and more plastics collection and recycling.
How are chemicals produced from plastic waste?
First, plastic waste is collected and sorted. Then it is broken down at a molecular level – we call this advanced recycling – using a special heating process called pyrolysis, which turns it into a liquid. This liquid can then be used in a steam cracker to produce a range of high-end chemicals, from which new plastic products can be made.
These circular chemicals have the same properties as chemicals made from fossil fuels and require no changes to customers’ manufacturing processes.
Is Shell producing chemicals from plastic waste?
Yes! The first Shell plant to do this was Norco in Louisiana, USA. Shell has partnered with leaders in plastic waste molecular recycling to supply a pyrolysis liquid made from plastic waste that is fed into Norco’s liquid cracker, where it makes chemicals that are the raw materials for everyday items.
After two years of high-quality supply from these companies, Shell has signed supply agreements for more than 100,000 t of fully circular pyrolysis liquid, which will come online over the next three years.
Shell’s intention is to continue to scale up this technology and deploy it at its chemical plants in North America, Europe and Asia, and gradually achieve world-scale production by 2025.
Shell has also invested in plastic-waste-to-chemical technology company BlueAlp. Together, Shell and BlueAlp will build two new conversion units in the Netherlands that are forecast to convert more than 30,000 t/y of plastic waste into pyrolysis oil that will be used at Shell Chemicals Park Moerdijk. Another 50,000 t/y unit will supply pyrolysis oil to Shell Energy and Chemicals Park Singapore. Shell will use the pyrolysis oil to supply customers with sustainable chemicals.
So which companies is Shell working with on plastics circularity?
We’re collaborating across the plastic waste value chain, including with:
- BlueAlp, which is developing, scaling up, and deploying BlueAlp’s plastic waste to chemicals feedstock technology in Europe;
- Dialog Group Berhad, which is exploring building a unit to produce pyrolysis oil derived from plastic waste;
- Remondis, which is involved in the collection and sorting of waste including plastic and biomass;
- Environmental Solutions Asia, which will supply pyrolysis oil to Shell Energy and Chemicals Park Singapore;
- Pryme, which will supply pyrolysis oil to Shell’s chemicals plants in Europe; and
- Nexus Circular, Freepoint Eco-Systems and Alterra Energy, which will supply pyrolysis oil to Shell’s chemicals plant in Louisiana, USA.
What type of recycling is Shell focusing on?
There are broadly two types: mechanical recycling and advanced recycling.
Mechanical recycling, which uses grinding, washing, sorting and reprocessing to repurpose plastic material, is the traditional method and is best suited for recycling lightweight plastics such as drinks bottles or milk jugs.
For other plastics that cannot be mechanically recycled and are currently destined for incineration or landfill, there is advanced recycling, in which hard-to-recycle plastic waste such as snack bags, ready-meal trays or plastic films that are unsuitable for mechanical recycling are turned into pyrolysis oil, a liquid that replaces hydrocarbons to produce circular chemicals. These circular chemicals are used by our customers to make a wide variety of products found in everyday life, such as cleaning products, textiles, food packaging and others.
Although Shell is working on a number of technologies and initiatives that reduce and reuse plastic, our particular focus is on advanced recycling. It’s important to note that the two types do not compete; they are complementary. Mechanical recycling is important, and advanced recycling can expand the types of plastic that can be recycled.