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A lifecycle assessment on chemically recycling plastics: A conversation with Neste’s Maiju Helin

M. HELIN, Neste, Helsinki, Finland; and L. NICHOLS, Hydrocarbon Processing, Houston, Texas

Hydrocarbon Processing (HP) spoke with Maiju Helin (MH), Head of Sustainability and Regulatory Transformation Renewable Polymers and Chemicals, Neste, regarding Neste’s lifecycle assessment (LCA) report on chemically recycling waste plastic. Helin provides insights on the LCA study, the primary conclusions obtained from the report, the current state of Neste’s Project PULSE and the company’s future plans for waste plastic recycling.

HP: Neste recently completed an LCA on the chemical recycling of waste plastic. Can you walk us through how this study came about, and Neste's intended goal of the LCA?

MH: We are currently in a decisive phase when it comes to scaling up chemical recycling technologies. We are seeing industrial-scale capacities taking shape on the horizon, regulatory frameworks are being developed and large companies are starting to think of chemical recycling when it comes to achieving their sustainability targets. We believe that in this current phase, it is crucial to showcase and validate the climate and environmental benefits of these new technologies.

That is why we decided to carry out an LCA of our chemical recycling approach. Our goal was to help industry players and policy makers make informed decisions related to advanced recycling, or chemical recycling as it is called, as well.

HP: How did Neste approach the LCA study?

MH: Our goal was to provide a comprehensive view on our chemical recycling approach. To do so, we decided to include several perspectives when analyzing the environmental impacts. In fact, this led us to look at different approaches and scopes of LCAs.

First, we considered chemical recycling as a waste treatment option, comparing it to the incineration of waste plastic. The second perspective considers the option of producing feedstock for plastics, which is compared to producing fossil naphtha, currently the most common feedstock in plastics production. Finally, we also took into consideration a fully circular lifecycle perspective where materials are chemically recycled and kept in the loop, comparing it to the common linear lifecycle model, where we see fossil resources as the raw material and the incineration of plastics as the treatment at the end of life.

An important starting point for our work was to consider chemical recycling a complementary solution to mechanical recycling. Therefore, we deliberately decided against a comparison of chemical vs. mechanical recycling, because we do not see a scenario where chemical recycling should replace mechanical recycling. If mechanical recycling makes sense, it should be done. However, where it cannot be used, chemical recycling can step in.

HP: What were the main conclusions Neste found from this study?

MH: While the perspectives differ in their results and while they cannot really be compared to each other, they all have one thing in common: they showed a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions vs. the reference, as well as a reduction in the dependence on fossil resources. Therefore, on top of adding value to waste, chemical recycling also helps combat climate change.

With this finding, our LCA also generally confirms other LCAs completed on chemical recycling even when the exact results may differ between these LCAs due to differences in perspectives, methodologies or data. At the same time, we also must be aware that chemical recycling is not a silver bullet solving all our problems related to plastic waste or plastic production.

We are often asked to provide a single figure as the result for the LCA. While this was not the intent of the study, if one single number could be picked out, it is this: petrochemical feedstock derived from chemical recycling has, at least, a 35% lower carbon footprint than petrochemical feedstock derived from fossil resources and waste plastic incineration as the end of life treatment, and it reduces the use of fossil resources by at least 70%.

HP: Can you talk more about Neste's Project PULSE and the goals/ambitions the organization has for this project?

MH: Project PULSE is part of our activities to advance chemical recycling. The project aims at implementing technologies to pretreat and upgrade liquefied waste plastic and integrate these technologies into Neste’s refinery operations in Porvoo, Finland.

Pretreatment and upgrading are crucial steps in turning liquefied waste plastic into high-quality petrochemical feedstock. Although liquefied waste plastic resembles crude oil, it contains impurities and chemical compositions that limit its use. PULSE bridges the quality gap between liquefied waste plastic oil and the industry’s raw material requirements by tackling these impurities and compositions. The targeted capacity of project PULSE is 400,000 tpy of liquefied waste plastic. This capacity will be reached gradually by 2028. In June 2023, we made the final investment decision for the first phase targeting 150,000 tpy capacity by 2025. The project is funded by the EU Innovation Fund.

HP: Can you provide details on the current state of Neste's waste plastics recycling operations, and the organization's plans for the future?

MH: We are following a clear goal: we want to enable the scale-up of chemical recycling. Throughout the course of several processing runs, we have processed some thousands of tons of liquefied waste plastic into petrochemical feedstock at our refinery in Porvoo. These runs provide us with valuable learnings and experiences for the transition to circular feedstocks without compromising product quality. Project PULSE will be one of the key enablers in scaling up capacities.

Another focus is on cooperation with liquefaction developers because we not only need the capacities to refine liquefied waste plastic into plastics feedstock, we also need the partners that liquefy waste plastic for us for further processing. To that end, we also acquired the European rights to license Alterra Energy’s liquefaction technology. It is important to note, however, that our intention is not to keep that to ourselves, but to also offer it to those interested in participating in building chemical recycling capacity.

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