Let’s talk round table
What is the future of plastics? Will nationwide bans eliminate this material for good? Will we find better techniques of reusing the valuable molecules contained inside? And who will take responsibility? Find out all this and more in this LTAI exclusive debate with returning guests.
ML (Michael Londesborough): We have a tendency as human beings to see things in black and white, to see things very simply. This tendency is exaggerated by the internet which is often making complicated complex things artificially simple. One concern that I have, and when I say I also mean the group within whom I work, is that we're facing global problems as a society and yet there are many forces which are trying to make our understanding of these problems over simplistic. The idea of “Let's talk about it” is to provide a platform of information through discussions with experts in different fields who provide their own angle and understanding on topics surrounding sustainability, innovation, transitions to circular economies, resource management and other similar global challenges that we're facing. The idea is that through watching these programs, all of us can be better informed and generate our own opinions on what we can see in these videos. Really, it's a quest to try to find some truth in all the information that's available.
ML: Today we've got a special discussion, a roundtable and we're going to be talking about plastics. We're going to be focusing on plastics and whether plastics belong to a responsible future. The reason that we've chosen this topic is because plastics are very much in the public eye, they very much feature in on social media and in traditional media. It's identified as a global problem for which, maybe at first glance, one might even think there is no solution to. That's something we wanted to investigate as a team behind “Let's talk about it” - trying to come to some idea of what is really happening, what can really be done, who's doing what.
ML: On either side of me, I have two gentlemen who are very much playing roles in working out what to do with plastic and plastic wastes. If I start on my right-hand side here, we have Aleš Bláha (AB). We have met with Aleš on “Let's talk about it”. Indeed, all our visitors here have been on “Let's talk about it” program which you can see on YouTube. Aleš Bláha is a member of the Prague services board of directors - he's on the upper board of people who are working on how to manage our waste here in Prague most effectively. In particular, he's the director of and he's leading the reconstruction of the Waste Energy Incineration Plant (ZEVO) in Malešice. Aleš is coming of course from a technical background and is doing that important role of working on how to receive back or retain the energy which are in various plastic compounds back into the grid, so we can reuse it and put it back into the cycle.
Then directly on my right is Jiří Kotek (JK) who is the director of the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences. Macromolecule means a huge, big molecules of which included in under that big framework are of course polymers–plastics. Jiří himself is involved in at least one project which is looking at the recycling of plastics which we'll get to. But at the moment he's also the chairman of the European Plastics Federation, so Jiří also got not just a national perspective but a European-wide perspective.
Here on my direct left is Vojtěch Vosecký (VV). He's the co-founder of INCIEN, which is the Institute of Circular Economy. Now you've taken a sort of bigger remit, but you remain your concentration on your expertise - on transitions into the circular economy. We've had two discussions indeed looking at focusing mainly on Prague, but also with some overlays in other European countries. Vojtěch has got a really strong and diverse background understanding how we can transition our economy to a circular economy and of course that's very relevant to what we want to talk about in terms of plastics and where the plastics can play a responsible role in the future.
Last but not least, a gentleman to my far left is Robert Suchopa (RS). He's working at ORLEN Unipetrol’s research and education facilities. He's also involved in a large project which is looking to use pyrolysis of plastic wastes and to regenerate some of the starting compounds - some of the starting hydrocarbons, which then could go back into the loop - back into the cycle. So Robert has a really a lot to offer in terms of that technical background and the understanding of what plastics are, how they behave and how we can use chemistry and physics to regenerate the starting materials for them.
ML: I, of course, am the interviewer of all these programs. I'm also associated with ORLEN Unipetrol as a brand ambassador. I'm interested, generally speaking, as a chemist in the way our planet can capture and store light energy in chemical forms and that crosses over very much into the hydrocarbons and what we can do with them–whether that be for energy or later the petrochemical uses in plastics polymers, pharmaceuticals or whatever it might be. All these chemical things get me excited, as I am indeed a chemist. For the last two years, we've been working with “Let's talk about it” project. I think there's lots of really great stuff on our website - if you go to YouTube, you can look all it up - but let's kick off with our discussion here today. Vojtěch, if I can begin with you and you can provide maybe a sort of wider perspective. In general, why are people rather worried about plastics going forward into the future?
VV (Vojtěch Vosecký): Well, thanks for the introduction. It's great to see everyone over here. To answer your question, I think we don't have to look that much far right. You go out on the street and you see some of the single-use plastic packaging lying in our open nature, some of it being accumulated in our oceans, in our open environments and that is causing definitely a lot of harm. Of course, there's this whole carbon footprint related to our goal to reduce the total emissions that we produce as humanity and plastics play a big role in that. Thus, I think it's a reason to be concerned, a serious one, but at the same time there's a lot that can be done about it–from a circle point of view, design perspective or producers perspective. So, I don't think it's a dead end - I think there's a lot we can do. But we could say that we are in fact in a crisis that needs to be solved.
ML: Yes, because I don't know about you gentlemen, but when thinking about plastics, I think the core reason for fear is that they're synthetic and I think that people generally have a predisposition to be a bit slightly skeptical about things that are synthesized - that are made by human beings. If you look at the material ages, we often describe the development of the mankind in terms of ages–the stone age, the iron age, the bronze age and then you get to the polymer age. When you start off the stone, that's when we could just pick up a stone and use the stone, then with a bit of intelligence you realize you can extract things from stone and you can form metals. Then, with a bit more intelligence and chemistry, you can mix metals to form alloys which have different properties. Then we've come to the age where finally we're almost able to assemble molecules into long macromolecules and chains which have all these properties which we can almost determine at will. That sort of sort of climax of human intelligence and sophistication is greeted, I think, by many people with suspicion. Would that be fairly accurate in your opinion Jiří? Do you think that is the root cause of worry and fear about plastics?
JK (Jiří Kotek): Well, I'm sure that for the majority of applications we don't have any better alternative, but what we have to change is our behavior. Just in fact almost 40% of plastic production is used as packaging materials and that's the problem–that as we have already said that, we see the plastic packaging almost everywhere. We have to change our behavior.
ML: Okay, but just to maybe dwell a short while on this first point of understanding what are the concerns about plastics - I think with education and knowledge about the actual chemistry of polymers and plastics, we could go some way to helping people have less fear about them. Robert, what do you think? You understand a lot about the chemistry of polymers and plastics. Do you also find that many people think of it as a sort of Frankenstein synthetic man-made monster rather than being just rather sophisticated chemicals?
RS (Robert Suchopa): Well, I guess we might describe the general feeling as it's not natural. If you throw away plastic and it stays there for hundreds of years, that's not a natural thing to do for material. If you throw away a food scrap, it will eventually disintegrate - it will take some time, but it will happen. But with plastic, nothing like this is going to happen, therefore it might feel unnatural. By using plastics we can achieve mechanical properties of other material in a realm where the other materials could not perform or could not deliver - this is, in my opinion, one of the reasons why we rely on plastics so much, on something that is not natural. You can say: “Well, why didn't you consider metal using metal for this application?”–“Well, because plastic does better”. So I would say that maybe some kind of feel for what is natural and what is not is maybe one of the motivators of that fear, or maybe one of the groundwork for where the fear is coming from at the societal level.
ML: That's an interesting point. We've got maybe rational and irrational fear. I think maybe some of the fear I was talking about is an irrational-based fear - maybe just they not too sure about what they are, so then that's an irrational-based fear. But certainly there’s a rational-based fear when you hear that you've got a material that, when discarded, will hang around for hundreds of thousands of years. So that gives us I think a rational concern, doesn't it? Then you mentioned people, they might say: “Well, okay so why not use a different material?”. Why not to use a different material, gentlemen? What does plastic offer us that other materials just do not? Anybody like to answer that?
AB (Aleš Bláha): I think it is the weight - it is not so heavy. I will be a little bit philosophical - the materials, which came in the iron or bronze age, they last, they are still here but they have been replaced by other materials, for example, by plastics. The same will happen with plastics, we will live with plastics to the end of our life of course, but the point is to minimize the amount of it and to make it easier to make only some sort of plastic which can be recycled much better. Today a lot of waste companies are asking us to take the residuals after the plastic recycling, because only 20% to 30% of plastic collected in the yellow bins can be reused, can be used again as material. 70%, maybe 80%, it depends, will be incinerated or landfilled. I see us as this: Jiří is at the birth of the material, Vojtěch is the assistant at the lifetime and we both are at the end, at the funeral of the plastic. Of course, we can incinerate - it is better than landfill, but it is not the best way. The best way would be to minimize the amount, because we can live without plastic - you could see it now during the epidemic. We can replace plastic with paper, glass and reuse it. Do not overuse plastic so easily as we do - this is the problem.
ML: Do you think there's an overuse already?
ML: Would you agree with that Jiří?
JK: Yes, of course.
ML: Can we identify which used plastics can be substituted by other materials?
JK: I think they can be substituted, but at the expense of the nature. It has been shown that - now I’m speaking about packaging - if the plastics were replaced by other conventional materials–glass, paper and so on, the weight would be 3.5 higher, the energy requirements will be higher as well. It's also concerned with the greenhouse gas emissions.
ML: What do you think about that Vojtěch? That’s the deal: If we decide to replace some of our plastics with other materials, then we pay for that through extra weight, extra production costs leading to bigger carbon footprints…
VV: Exactly. I think you made a point. I didn't want to sound so alarming at the start of my speech, but you asked what are the environmental concerns and those are the facts that we have, but I think at the same time it's really great material that has enabled us to be and get where we are. It has caused also many positive impacts on the economy and our lifestyles and so on, but what we're seeing today is that there is an overproduction and overconsumption of single-use and often non-recyclable plastic - especially post-consumer packaging. That's the problem. Maybe not even here, but especially if you go to Indonesia, China, you see they don't have these effective waste management systems as we do, where we're able to collect it. Maybe they have difficulties recycling, but sometimes it's the matter of price not technology. So, what I'm trying to say is that I think we need to be careful with replacements of plastics because often the solutions can be even worse. For example bioplastics about which I think I have strong concerns about, because who knows if they're really biodegradable or not etc… Does it make sense to put water in metal cans? Is it better from the environmental perspective? Probably not. We need to get better at working with what we have. That material is going to stay with us like Aleš said, but we cannot allow to lose control of it and let it disappear into the environment and let it degrade. We need a circular economy from a business perspective, city perspective, household perspective where we'll be able to use plastics in a more circular ways. Plastics can be made to be recycled or from recycled content that's great for reducing our carbon footprint. They can be made to be refillable, reusable, etc. So these are the models that we need to explore, but as Aleš said, I think we need to really get away from this overproduction of the single-use items that are really not necessary. You go to conference, not here luckily, but some places - that place is filled with the cups, the plastic spoons and it just goes straight to the incineration plant or landfill. That's really not the future.
ML: Okay, are you all now in agreement with that perspective, gentlemen? If I summarize that: the plastic as a material per se has certain advantages which can't be reproduced by other materials which are valuable to society and to us. However, the main problem is overproduction, especially of single-use plastics. Is that a fair summary so far? Would you agree with that?
RS: Yes, and I liked the Vojtěch sentence, that we have to learn to do better with what we have. This is something that underlines it.
ML: So far, we've established that this material has a lot of inherent value for us. It is maybe at the moment overproduced and overused in certain areas, but Vojtěch is suggesting that we can use principles of the circular economy to manage this resource a lot more effectively. So, let's move on to the management of resources - you briefly talked a bit about production, so let's start with production and design. Would anybody like to comment on how they understand plastic production? What is wrong with that or right with that and where it should go into the future? Jiří, would you like to say something about production, maybe even from a European perspective?
JK: That is right. The plastic packaging is sometimes overused, there is some unnecessary packing. On the other hand, we still more and more often buy goods via e-shops and such products are packed at least twice. What I really dislike is the overuse of polyethylene stretch films - it's easy to work with, there is no need to make an extra effort to put several layers in a few seconds. But I would like to go slightly back. We are afraid of plastics or plastic waste today mainly because of littering since we can see it everywhere, so I think the worst aspect that is connected with plastics is the littering and the second one is at the end of their life landfilling. We have to look at plastic waste as in my point of view as the source of feedstock or at least of an energy.
ML: Okay, so it's important then to maintain that once we finish the use of that plastic, once I've drunk my water from that plastic bottle, I have to be mindful that the value of those molecules is still there and that its life cycle goes on. So, let's talk a bit about that. We have produced our plastic containers or whatever it might be. We've had the immediate part of the life cycle - in other words my consumer use of that plastic. Let’s assume that I will not litter it and put it directly into the environment, but I put it as a good citizen into the yellow bin. So, it goes into the yellow bin, then what happens to it? You briefly mentioned that something like 50% was going straight to landfill…
AB: 70%, maybe 80%. It depends on the demand of materials on the market. For example, this one (plastic bottle on the table), this is classical PET. You can reuse it for reproduction of a sweatshirt - you need maybe 10 on 11 large bottles for one sweatshirt. Also, for example, in the car production for the inside parts - for the roof inside. But you can't do it endlessly. If you recycle a material, doesn't matter which one, after some cycles you come to the end and you can't use it anymore, because the macromolecules are cracked by this process of regranulation and then you have to throw it away, either to the landfill, incinerate it, or use it as a material for new fuel.
ML: If I provide a bit of structure for the audience here. Imagine you're throwing away your plastics into the yellow bins. Some of the high value bottles are more easily recyclable and dealt with directly, others will be unfortunately up to 70% or 80% put into a landfill. Maybe we can discuss why that is a bad idea on a whole to put into landfill. Or it can be sent to Aleš who can collect it and incinerate it - to combust it and control conditions to receive the energy back - because these molecules have all their energy still within them. So at least we get the energy back, which of course is a sort of recycling of the original solar energy that was fixed by photosynthesis. Then there are other, possibly newer techniques for how to deal with plastic waste such as pyrolysis, heating it up. We're going to be talking about that in more detail with Robert and regenerating some of the starting materials, the feedstock for plastics. So, let's break that up. First of all, the big elephant in the room is landfill and if I look at the at the figures about landfill, they vary considerably from country to country. We've mentioned what's happening here in the Czech republic. If you take a country such as Greece, then it's almost 100% - everything goes into landfill. If you go to northern Scandinavian countries, maybe 0% is going to landfill. Can you give me a bit of perspective on what you understand about landfill and why do different countries pursue different policies?
VV: The landfills are an easy fix and the landfills are technology a couple thousand years old. I mean, when we had waste in the cities, for example in the bronze age, there was very little of it, because we were great at reusing and recycling everything - it was just a matter of life or death. Waste was just thrown away behind the city doors and it stayed there and accumulated a little, but most of it disappeared because it was of organic origin. Landfills in a nutshell haven't changed that much over the last few thousand years - we still put piles of trash, we dig it underground, we secure them - not perfectly, and it stays there. We leave it as a “legacy” to our future generations. This is how we work with resources, right? So, landfill is obviously the worst solution we could come up with and we need to radically eliminate it. Why some countries are better than others? - I think, you could argue the same with electro-mobility or renewable energy, some countries especially the northern Europe or western Europe have been more progressive with their legislation than the countries here and they had a big head start–for example Germany, already in the 90s, we're doing better than Czechs are doing today. It is related to our history, our culture, but that's changing now - we have EU which is setting targets that are jointly agreed across the member states. But always the Scandinavian countries are complaining: “We're already doing this” and the Greeks are screaming: “We need 10 more years to get to zero landfills”, so it's going to get unified, and it's going to take time. It's also about a business model of the waste management companies - landfills are very cheap, so it depends on the national governments whether they tax them. That's going to change in the Czech Republic, but it has been done in Germany in the 90s already.
ML: That's going to change in the Czech Republic. They are going to tax landfill more.
VV: Yes. Four times more in the next 10 years.
ML: So that then provides Aleš and Robert with a lot more raw materials in terms of plastic waste coming towards your solutions. Before we come into discussing a bit more about what your solutions are, Can I just ask you, Jiří, to explain to us why, in terms of the science of it, is it a bad idea to leave plastic waste in landfill?
JK: Because it's a source of feedstock or energy.
ML: So it's simply an economical reason for you because we're wasting resources?
JK: Could I make some small introduction about recycling? Basically, we have two kinds of plastics: thermoplastics and thermosets. The majority of packaging materials are thermoplastics - they can be re-melted at elevated temperatures. On disabilities based the first kind of recycling, so-called mechanical or material recycling, the material is just remelted and pelletized - the pellets are then reprocessed by conventional methods. That is the simplest way, however, there are two main requirements: the first is that the material has to be properly selected - just one material - and at the same time it must be clean. The main disadvantage is that, as Aleš already said, the macromolecules of which the plastics are made and the unique properties of plastics are given by the length of that molecule. During the thermomechanical processing, the transition occurs, so we got smaller macromolecules - thus it deteriorates the properties. Such material recycling is at quite high level in the case of PET bottles - we are all today able to produce bottles from bottles which is the closed loop. That is, I think, the favorite way from the circular economy point of view, because in this case it is possible during the process to overcome the decrease in the molecular weight or in the macromolecule's length. Also, high-density polyethylene is widely recycled by this process, followed by low-density polyethylenes and polypropylenes.The second step is chemical recycling when the macromolecules are decomposed to the monomers to the basic units, which is possible almost in polycondensates, also in the case of PET. It doesn't require so clean material, but it still requires one material at a certain level of cleanliness. The next methods are pyrolysis and gasification–I think you will get more info information later. Finally, if the previous isn’t possible, we can still use the energy and because of that transition, it's a completely different behavior from metals, for instance. Steel can be remelted many times, that's not possible with plastics.
ML: Okay. Is that all clear to it to everybody here? Landfill is generally a bad idea, at least from an economical point of view. I presume also from an environmental point of view, right? I mean, can these plastics potentially leak into our environment through landfill?
VV: Maybe it's going to sound like heresy, but I think there are way worse materials in the landfills than plastics. I think plastics, for example, organic waste or toxic waste is the real issue, because that rots, produces methane emissions and it leaks into the bottom water reservoirs. So, I don't know how plastics act and react in the landfills when they're mixed with other sources of waste - it's an interesting question.
ML: Even so, landfill is definitely bad. It looks that the Czech government is committed now to raising the tax on landfills, so we can expect a transition towards other ways of treating this waste. As Jiří mentioned, there are different types of plastics - some are more landed to then being recycled than others. Each recycling step you lose some of the initial advantages of the virgin material in terms of its property, nevertheless it can be done. Now, when we get to the unclean, dirty, potentially toxic single-use plastics coming from, let's say hospitals etc., it goes I think past the easy recycling possibilities and it goes to something like incineration or even pyrolysis in your case. Robert, could you tell us all about how pyrolysis works? What plastics are suitable for it? What do we get from it? And what are the advantages of disadvantages?
RS: Right, I will try to give you a brief overview of how pyrolysis works. You simply apply heat to a material without oxygen being present, because when you once apply heat and there is oxygen, you have incineration - it burns. We can't really have that if we want to use something more out of it than energy. This is how pyrolysis work - you take material, heat it up, get rid of the oxygen and then some changes of a chemical nature start to occur. It's similar to the what happens to the plastic as is being re-melted as Mr. Kotek has described before me. Basically, we are applying the same principle only in an elevated temperature, so it accelerates the rate of these reactions. Therefore, we end up with some kind of product out of it. Based on what temperature we choose, we end up with either the lightest possible molecules, which are of gaseous phase, or if we step back a little bit to temperatures of around 600-700 degrees, we end up with a certain proportion of liquids. Then it's up for us what to do with those with those products. They are still chemicals, because plastics were born as crude oil, then reprocessed and then on the industrial scale pyrolysed–actually, pyrolysis is one of the most common reaction that is used for producing monomers like ethylene, propylene on industrial scale and this is something what has been done for decades. So we are very familiar with what happens when we apply fossil crude oil-based feedstock into pyrolysis. We yield ethylene, propylene, benzene for instance…
ML: At good conversion rates? Is it efficient?
RS: They are good or let's say what is a good conversion rate, right? They are kind of feasible and somehow we are reaching the plateau of what the nature allows us - what the thermodynamics actually allows us to produce. So at certain conversion rates as good as possible and then we take those monomers, we polymerize them. Therefore, from monomers, you end up with polymers. Then you add some additives, for instance, and when you mix polymer with an additive, you get plastic. The battery of technologies that we use in this whole process can be reapplied, for instance, to those coming out of pyrolysis of waste plastics, because pyrolysis works always the same - it's just a matter of what you feed into the pyrolysis - and then the product can be managed exactly the same way as the other chemical or hydrocarbon streams. So it's just a matter of well picking the right technology and setting it up.
ML: My quick question - I’m imagining now this circle where I’ve got an old polymer, which has been thrown away. Then I put it into your pyrolysis instrument, it dissembles that polymer chain into individual monomers, I collect it and then I can remake a new polymer...That new polymer is as good as virgin polymer fabrication?
RS: Yes, and that's exactly the point.
ML: That's an interesting method of recycling, where there's the end product, which is as good as new. It is, as Jiří pointed out in other recycling techniques, for example melting of thermoplastics, you might lose some properties. But how much do we lose in that process? If I give you a kilo of plastic waste, how much new plastic can I get back?
RS: I would say that from a kilo of plastics you can get 60-70% of something of value, either gaseous or liquid phase. It’s those 60-70%, but there is always a mixture coming out of it. There is always some liquid produced, there is always some solid part produced, there is always some gaseous product produced. Coming back to what I’ve said, plastic itself is partly polymer and partly additives - this ratio can differ greatly in tires, for instance, it's like only 50-50 rubber and other additives. For instance, in these low-density polyethylene stretch foils, it's almost pure polymer. So, it really depends on what you feed it and it affects directly your yield structure - what kind of proportion of gas and liquid you get. Then it's just a matter of economy of scale whether it's worth it for you to deal with also the gaseous product not only the liquid product, because oil is easy to handle. Therefore, I would like to give you a general answer, but it's not really possible - you would have to at least specify what kind of….
ML: …at least we've got a ballpark figure. Vojtěch, you had a question...
VV: Yes. I think this sounds really interesting. So when we think of using waste products as a feed for pyrolysis, when you look at this - this is HDPE, this is PET and this is probably PE or PVC - you can't really just mash the bottles of these three components into one tonne and put it to a pyrolysis, right?
RS: Yes, you can. This is what I meant by the fact that the pyrolysis works always the same.
VV: Okay, that's what I’m interested in, because what Aleš is dealing with is that there's so much plastics that has no market value, maybe technological value for recycling and they need to be destroyed or incinerated. But can we use this “waste” for pyrolysis?
RS: Generally, yes - you are still talking about the hydrocarbons entering and hydrocarbons leaving. Only question is what determines whether you are going to actually do or do not what is the yield. Therefore, how expensive the whole chain gets and what is the quality in terms of other contaminants being present in those products that you need to get rid of? But in principle we do exactly the same with crude oil - this is exactly the same as what happens. We extract oil it's full of contaminants and we, as a humanity, have developed approaches over decades that can get rid of those contaminants and produce products that are of value.
ML: So, it’s a refinement, an engineering problem?
JK: I just want to point out that pyrolysis is suitable for mixed plastic waste, so for different types of plastics…
VV: It sounds like a magical, but I don't see it happening…
ML: We're going to come to that, but before we come to that I wanted to go quickly over to Aleš, because rather than sending it to Robert to pyrolyse, we could just send it directly to Aleš and he could get all the energy back or at least a lot of the energy back just by burning it out, right? Tell us a bit about what goes on at Malešice, how it works?
AB: Firstly, let me set clear that we are not looking forward to the hills of plastic coming to our plant, because we will get a lot of problems with the heating value. The waste energy plants are suitable for heating value of about, let me say, 10-12 gigahertz per ton. One ton of plastic has about 30-40 gigajoule, so it would be a big problem on the grid.
ML: …Too much energy?
AB: Yes, too much energy and it can destroy the grid if you put too much plastic there.
ML: So there's a capacity problem?
AB: No, it is a technology problem, not the capacity problem. Let me say that we have a capacity of about 400 000 metric tons per year and we will be able to co-incinerate with the household waste maybe 20 000 metric tons of pure plastic residue per year, not more. It is because of the heating value of the mixture of household waste with the plastic waste, which will result in a heating value of about 10.5-11. So, the higher the heating value, the lower capacity, because the vessel can produce 40 tons of steam per hour. The higher the heating value, the less amount of waste you can drive through the vessel to get the 40 tons of steam per hour. This is the limitation, this is the reason why we don't want too much plastic. Of course we will be able to co-incinerate some amount of plastic, but definitely a much better way is what Robert does, because you have of its energy recovery of course, but you have also fuel with higher value. We are producing only heat and he can drive engines with it, for example. When I will introduce the European hierarchy of handling the waste priority, you have diminishing of ways, then you have reusing of waste as material, then reusing of waste as fuel and then landfill. The stage of reusing of plastic materials as fuel has yet two steps -the higher step is what Robert does and the lower step is what we do.
ML: Yes. Let's go back to that question you had (Vojtěch had). Robert, what's stopping you from taking in huge quantities of plastic waste, putting it into your magic tube and pyrolysing it and getting out of it all those lovely gaseous and liquid hydrocarbon molecules?
RS: Do you want the simple answer? It's money, it always is. No, it's one of the problems and it's not true that it's not happening. For instance, a company that we all probably know, even though the majority of people in the audience are not probably chemist, BASF, is making this concept work in Norway. It’s not a coincidence that it's happening in Norway in particular, because although they apply some of the European Union regulations, they do not comply to all of them. Therefore, there is a certain degree of freedom left out for companies like BASF to try or to use the Norway market as their kind of test facility for these concepts, and they actually do that. In spring this year, meaning the company who does this magical tube thing, they have signed an agreement with a Norwegian green dot scheme operator - Norwegian equivalent of EKO-KOM here in Czech republic - that they will process annually like up to 18 000 tons of waste plastics a year and this is still just a pilot plant. This is just: “we believe we have made it work, so let's try it out” phase. But what are the costs there? I will try to elaborate just briefly on that. Well…what comes out of pyrolysis of waste plastic can be very heterogeneous in terms of the fact it strongly depends on what you put into pyrolysis and there is a vast number of plastics - I believe there are over one million polymers as molecules being registered with within the CAS systems, so up to one million molecules can enter. Therefore, you can imagine how many will leave and these molecules, these mixtures, they bring with them kind of contaminants and properties that are so dissimilar from oil. So, although the refineries have been built to process oil, they still can process somehow with slight adjustments these materials…
ML: Can you dilute it?
RS: You can either dilute it in or you can kind of create a smaller technology only dedicated for this type of material stream. It's all possible - it's just matter of money, because it costs something extra. The reason why it has not been kind of rolled out industry-wide worldwide is simple: at the end you produce a product which is not competitive to the original virgin and once the consumer or the system is not willing to pay extra for that, why would you do? I would say virgin plastic producer is not obliged to comply to any extended producer responsibility, dissimilarly to plastic packaging producers, for instance. But once the moment comes, and I believe it will, the chemistry sector will be ready to roll out with the scale of these applications. So, this is one of the key, let's say, obstacles on the way. Secondly, just to give you an idea: my office is in a refinery in Litvínov, which is the largest refinery and petrochemical complex in central Europe and this complex alone crunches through 6 million tons of crude oil a year. From that we produce 5 million tons of fuel and million tons of petrochemicals and if we say: “Okay, how about we replace 10% of our production with recycled material?” We are suddenly talking about producing a 100 000 tons of petrochemicals out of waste and for that you would have to manage 250 000 tons of plastic waste, which is a whole yellow bin system in the Czech Republic. Thus, the appetite is there, but the plastic by nature is very decentralized to make it work and for us - chemical players -to make it work, there…
ML: ...has to be the market?
RS: Yes, there has to be the market, but also there has to be the scale. This scale is problematic, because as I described, the 100 000 tons of recycled materials need to begin with 250 000 tons of waste plastic being put through some kind of process - be it pyrolysis or gasification, etc. This is basically a whole every yellow bin in the Czech Republic.
ML: Briefly Jiří, you're also working on using microwave energy to do something similar. Is it a similar technique to pyrolysis?
JK: No, no. As I was explaining, the basic recycling method is material recycling - just remelting. The second kind is a chemical recycling when you decompose the plastic or the polymer into the monomer units. The third one is feedstock recycling - either pyrolysis or gasification when you get some gaseous components such as a synthetic gas in the case of gasification and some paraffins, waxes and small hydrocarbons, etc..
ML: And you're working on the first methods?
JK: Yes, using microwaves, it’s just chemical recycling. We have focused on polyurethane foams that are cross-linked - it means it's impossible to remelt them. We decompose the foams using microwave heating, which allows us to decrease the energy requirements. At the same time, we use a bio solvent prepared from raised natural oils, so it's, let's say, more nature-friendly. From these obtained substances, we can again synthesize the polyurethane foam.
ML: We’re coming to the end of our first hour, so in a moment I’d like to open this discussion up to the whole floor, but perhaps there's a sort of little semi-conclusion now. Vojtěch, I'm going to ask you as somebody who's got his fingers on the more of a broader concept of the circular economy-from what you've just been listening to now, is this filling you with confidence about how we can improve the way we're managing our resources of plastics?
VV: Partly yes. Of course it's great to hear that we're developing end of pipe solutions - to try to get better at eliminating plastic waste, but I think the discussion that we also need to have is about how do we really turn the whole system upside down and close the loop. About how do producers take responsibility behind business models to not focus on 30%-40% collection, but 100%. How do we really set up these circular loops from a producer perspective, consumer perspective? We haven't touched upon that in depth, but I think that's where we need to get. For ORLEN Unipetrol, as a producer of virgin plastic, I think pyrolysis sounds like a great option. The same could apply to companies that's making these bottles - they also need to have their own plan. So it's a bigger picture and we have not focused on it.
ML: Okay, let's get on to that. Maybe also with the support of questions from the audience about whether the systems are in place or even the ambition is in place to get 100% collection, get those feedstocks to all the different possibilities for sending it into the circle. Perhaps before you finish this first hour, can I ask for a quick yes or no answer? We can start with Aleš. Do plastics belong in a responsible future?
AB: I think so, yes.
VV: Yes, but different than now. This is really irresponsible what we're doing - it's destroying our planet.
ML: Well, in that case, I'd like to thank you all for being with us for the first hour.