Exxon’s New ‘Advanced Recycling’ Plant Raises Environmental Concerns | ExxonMobil

ExxonMobil has just launched one of the largest chemical recycling plants in North America, but environmental advocates say the technology is a dangerous distraction from the need to reduce plastic production.

On the surface, the latest addition to the ExxonMobil giant petrochemical refinery complex in Baytown, Texas, that could be a good thing: an “advanced recycling” facility capable of breaking down 36,000 tons of hard-to-recycle plastic each year. But plastic waste advocates warn that factories like this recycle little and instead generate dangerous pollutants while providing cover for oil giants to continue churning out millions of tonnes of new plastic products every year.

The facility, which began full-scale operations in December last year, is one of the largest chemical recycling plants in North America. Chemical recycling works by breaking down plastic polymers into small molecules to make new plastics, synthetic fuels and other products. Companies like ExxonMobil have rebranded the technology as “advanced recycling” and are now touting it as the latest high-tech solution to the plastics crisis, as traditional mechanical recycling has failed to stem the plastic tide. pile up in landfills And the ocean.

ExxonMobil also says it plans to build chemical recycling plants at “many of its other manufacturing sites around the world.” Although it has not committed specific dollar amounts to building new plants, the company is currently evaluating sites in Louisiana, Illinois, Belgium, Singapore and elsewhere.

By the end of 2026, the oil giant hopes to have enough chemical recycling capacity to process around 450,000 tonnes of plastic each year.

But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of plastic created by ExxonMobil.

In 2021 alone, ExxonMobil produced 6 million tonnes of new single-use plastic, more than any other petrochemical company, according to a recent report by the Minderoo Philanthropic Foundation. What else, recent search showed that chemical recycling is worse for the environment than mechanical recycling in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and water use, and in some cases worse than the production of virgin plastic. The process used by ExxonMobil’s Baytown plant, called pyrolysis, is often so inefficient that many conservationists say it shouldn’t be called recycling at all.

Smoke fills the air at the Baytown, Texas refinery in 2021. In that year alone, ExxonMobil produced 6 million tons of new single-use plastic Photograph: Mark Mulligan/AP

Conventional mechanical recycling involves sorting different types of plastic into individual streams that are washed, shredded and melted to make new products. During this process, the chemical composition of the plastic remains unchanged, although contaminants can seep in during the melting and cutting process and the end products have a weaker physical structure.

Chemical recycling relies on high heat, high pressure, or chemical catalysts like enzymes to break plastic down into its molecular building blocks. These building blocks can then be used to make new products, including new plastics with the same physical structure as the parent material.

The most common chemical recycling technology today is pyrolysis, according to Taylor Uekert, a National Renewable Energy Laboratory scientist who studies plastic recycling.

Pyrolysis has significant environmental impacts. Factories that use it require large amounts of energy to operate: Uekert found that recycling one kilogram of high-density polyethylene plastic through pyrolysis requires almost seven times the amount of energy needed to make one kilogram of plastic virgin. Typically, this energy comes from burning fossil fuels, which creates air pollution and carbon emissions that warm the planet.

Pyrolysis operations can also consume large volumes of water, and they are often generate hazardous waste. Overall, Uekert’s research found that the environmental impact of producing pyrolyzed recycled plastics is 10 to 100 times greater than producing virgin plastic.

In a pyrolysis plant, plastic is placed in a reactor and subjected to high temperatures (varying from 300 to 900C) and pressures in the absence of oxygen. This processing transforms the plastic into a synthetic form of crude oil that can be used as a replacement for fossil fuels or to create new plastics.

Although pyrolysis is capable of processing more types of plastic waste than some other chemical recycling technologies, Uekert said it is not generally considered “closed-loop” recycling because the fuel it generates is often burned for energy – meaning it can’t be recycled over and over again. Although pyrolysis is not the same as incineration, in which waste is burned in the presence of oxygen, conservationists often compare pyrolysis to incineration since the end products tend to go up in smoke one way or another.

Chemical recycling “is a way for the industry to continue to grow its plastic production and allay people’s concerns about plastic waste,” said Single Veenaa senior scientist from the Natural Resources Defense Council who has analysis chemical recycling facilities in the United States. “They’re trying to put a nice bow on it.”

ExxonMobil’s recycling plant in Baytown uses the company’s proprietary “Exxtend” technology, a pyrolysis-based approach, according to company statements. Contacted for comment, ExxonMobil spokeswoman Julie King told the Guardian that this process “complements traditional mechanical recycling” by turning hard-to-recycle plastics into raw materials that can be used to make new plastics for packaging. food, medical equipment and personal hygiene products. .

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King declined to respond to criticism of the negative environmental impacts of pyrolysis, or answer questions about the amount of pollution generated by the Baytown recycling plant. She also did not confirm the exact name or location of the plant: When asked for identifying information that could be used to find her state and federal permits, King simply said that ‘ExxonMobil reports emissions to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the State of Texas “in a consistent and timely manner, in compliance with all laws, regulations and permits.” King also said third-party analysis by environmental consultancy Sphera found that every ton of plastic waste fed into ExxonMobil’s chemical recycling process generates 19-49% greenhouse gas emissions by less than processing the same amount of raw materials based on crude oil. (ExxonMobil did not share a copy of a report and Sphera did not respond to emails.)

She also declined to say how much plastic waste brought into the plant would be used to make recycled plastic versus synthetic fuel. Internal analysis shared with the Guardian by the Minderoo Foundation found that while ExxonMobil’s Baytown plant had typical pyrolysis plant yields, only 23% of the fuel it generates would be used to produce new plastics. The rest would go to other non-plastic applications, such as transportation fuel.

Chemical recycling “diverts attention from what we need, which is the reduction of single-use plastics and a global treaty on plastic waste”, said Phaedra Pezzulloprofessor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has a forthcoming book on plastics and environmental justice.

In a secret investigation in 2021, Unearthed caught ExxonMobil lobbyist Keith McCoy on video explaining how the company uses recycling – including Baytown plant – to shift the conversation to how to deal with plastic rather than reducing consumption. (Darren Woods, CEO of ExxonMobil, later said that McCoy’s comments “in no way represent the company’s position on a variety of issues”, and the oil company has since parted ways with McCoy.)

As the petrochemical industry forges ahead with chemical recycling, the same low-income communities and communities of color that bear the burden of plastic manufacturing are seeing these factories pop up in their backyards.

Of the eight chemical recycling facilities in operation in the United States in 2021, six are located in disproportionately black and brown communities, according to a report by Singla. Five are in areas where a large number of households live on less than $25,000 a year.

Exxon refinery in Baytown, Texas.  Nearly 20% of working-class, predominantly white residents live in poverty, with a per capita income of just $25,000.
The Baytown, Texas refinery. Nearly 20% of working-class, predominantly white residents live in poverty, with a per capita income of just $25,000. Photograph: Mark Mulligan/AP

The Baytown plant was not included in Singla’s analysis, which only included facilities for which data had been reported to the EPA or state permits were available as of August 2021. But the city, already a hub of petrochemical production, fits the model she identified. : Nearly 20% of its predominantly white working-class residents live in poverty, with a per capita income of just $25,000.

ExxonMobil Baytown Complex – which includes the third-largest oil refinery in the United States and a plant that manufactures 2.3 million metric tons of plastic per year – is a major contributor For regional air and water pollution. It also has a long history of emitting chemicals above its permit limits, including the carcinogenic compound benzene. In recent years, ExxonMobil’s Baytown complex has been the site of fires And explosions which injured workers and triggered shelter-in-place orders for nearby residents.

“Exxon has an abysmal pollution record in the Baytown community,” Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, told The Guardian. “This bogus ‘chemical recycling’ will only produce more toxic misery for Baytown.”

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