Expanding the plastics life cycle

Report Jan. 8, 2024

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Expanding the plastics life cycle

 

Plastics make modern life possible. Surgical devices, cell phones, computers, vehicles, packaging that protects and preserves food, and personal protective equipment – all rely on plastics. From hospitals and kitchens to science labs and airports, plastics are increasingly society’s material of choice due to the functional benefits and, as a category, the greenhouse gas benefits on a life-cycle basis vs. many alternatives.1

The global population is expected to increase by 25% by 2050,2 and as described in our Global Outlook, prosperity is projected to rise in both the developed (OECD) and developing (non-OECD) economies around the world. As living standards improve, plastics will be instrumental in many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including good health, food preservation, and clean drinking water. Even in the IEA Net Zero Emissions by 2050 scenario, global demand for primary chemicals is projected to be 20% higher than 2022.2

Approach

To meet society’s evolving needs, our efforts are focused both on enabling the societal benefits plastics provide and helping address the global issue of plastic waste. Our approach includes:

  • Expanding our advanced recycling capacity to help further broaden the range of plastics that can be recycled;
  • Developing plastic solutions that enable our customers to make products that society can more easily recycle; and
  • Supporting improvements in plastic waste recovery, gathering, and sorting.

Strengthening circularity with advanced recycling

Plastics are too valuable to waste, and we believe there is a better use for these materials than landfill, incineration, or worse, ending up in the environment. We are helping to address the plastic waste challenge through advanced recycling.

Unlike traditional or “mechanical” recycling, advanced recycling is not limited to those materials that can be ground down and melted into recycled plastic. With advanced recycling, difficult-to-recycle plastic waste from a wide range of sources is broken down at a molecular level, enabling us to convert even complex blends containing a range of impurities or contaminants into valuable raw materials that can be used to make products essential to modern life.

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*Attributed via ISCC PLUS v3.3 mass balance approach. Does not represent GHG emissions or recycled content.
To learn more, please visit https://cutt.ly/qwSqDjqt.

Globally, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that only about 9% of all plastics produced are currently recycled.3  While the first step needs to be investment in municipal collecting and sorting, we see a huge opportunity that advanced recycling can help address. Deployed together, mechanical recycling and advanced recycling could enable a greater volume and broader range of plastic waste to be recycled.

We sell certified-circular plastics corresponding to the amount of plastic waste we transform back into usable raw materials. We do this using a mass balance attribution approach that has been used in other industries for many years. What is mass balance attribution? In short, it is an accounting process that can be used in complex value chains like ours in which one input (e.g., plastic waste) is mixed with other inputs in a way that the different inputs cannot be physically traced throughout the system. This widely used approach helps our customers match the volume of their certified-circular plastic purchase to a corresponding amount of plastic waste that we transformed into usable raw materials.

Our advanced recycling facilities and process are certified via an independent, third-party certification system called International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) PLUS. ISCC is governed by an association with more than 240 members, including research institutes and NGOs.

The certificate we provide our customers is not a claim that our certified-circular polymers contain any “recycled content” or carry GHG benefits. Rather, it represents an assurance that we followed a rigorous mass balance attribution system that is certified by a third-party. This enables us to be transparent about our products, helping our customers, and their customers, progress and communicate circularity goals.

ExxonMobil’s ExxtendTM technology for advanced recycling process does not involve incineration of plastic waste, which would consume the molecules and make it impossible to manufacture new products out of them. Instead, in a chemical reactor, we apply heat but not oxygen to the plastic waste and other inputs. Without oxygen, there can be no incineration. And, in doing so, we strictly  follow the same rigorous environmental performance standards as in our other manufacturing processes. Presently, the technology converts approximately 88-90% of the processed plastic waste into raw materials that can be used to make a range of valuable products.

For every ton of plastic waste processed through advanced recycling, society reduces the need to process approximately one ton of fossil-derived feedstocks.4 And for every ton of certified-circular plastics sold, more than a ton of plastic waste avoids ending up in other end-of-life dispositions (e.g., landfill, incineration).

There is rising demand from consumers and customers for circularity, far exceeding the supply that mechanical recycling can provide. Purchasing certified-circular polymers can enable our customers to achieve circularity goals, such as:

  • Unlocking the value of plastic waste by converting it into useful raw materials;
  • Monetizing the value of plastic waste to drive better collection and sorting;
  • Contributing to the growth of the recycling sector; and
  • Accelerating plastic recycling rates.

We have made initial sales of certified-circular polymers to customers in multiple regions for use in food-safe plastic packaging. These include Sealed Air and Ahold Delhaize, Berry Global, and Amcor, all supporting a more circular economy for food packaging.

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Scaling up capacity

At the forefront of the evolving demand for certified-circular products, we are uniquely positioned with our scale, integration, and technology to rapidly expand advanced recycling capacity and help meet the needs of our customers and communities. Since the start of pilot operations at Baytown, Texas, we have recycled nearly 40 million pounds of plastic waste as of October 2023 with our ExxtendTM technology for advanced recycling.

Our Baytown advanced plastic waste recycling facility started up commercial-scale operations in December 2022, and with the capacity to recycle approximately 80 million pounds of plastic waste per year, it’s one of the largest advanced recycling facilities in North America. We are assessing opportunities to leverage similar technology at our affiliate sites in Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, and other U.S. locations. We are also collaborating with third parties on advanced recycling projects in France, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. We are working toward building about 1 billion pounds of annual advanced recycling capacity by year-end 2026, assuming supportive public policy.

Increasing recycling rates through collaboration and innovation

Advanced recycling capacity is largely dependent on supportive government policy and technology advancements that expand the collection and sorting of plastic waste. Through organizations such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, we are collaborating with others across the value chain to increase plastic waste collection and sorting to help support a more circular economy for plastics.

Cyclyx International, our joint venture with Agilyx Corp. and LyondellBasell, is developing innovative solutions for aggregating and pre-processing large volumes of plastic waste for both mechanical and advanced recycling. Cyclyx’s first-of-its-kind plastic waste processing facility in Houston will provide feed for plastic recyclers, including ExxonMobil. And we are both founding members of the Houston Recycling Collaboration, which brings together industry and government to increase access to plastic recycling in the Houston area.

One local program that has seen positive early results is our plastic collection effort with Cyclyx and LyondellBasell. In just four months, the city of Houston collected more than 100,000 pounds of plastic waste at one community drop-off location – two to three times more than before the program began.

Responsible manufacturing: the right products the right way

Our VistamaxxTM performance polymers make recycling easier by making polyethylene and polypropylene more compatible, which allows them to “mix in the melt” and eliminates the need for mechanical recyclers to separate these materials for processing. The result is a higher quality product for high-value applications at a lower cost.

Our efforts are further supported by our systems to responsibly manage plastics manufacturing, including the global standards we have set across all of our resin-handling operations. These standards are more stringent than the laws and regulations related to plastic pellet loss5 in many of the places we operate, and we collaborate with industry through Operation Clean Sweep-Blue to share best practices. As a result, in 2023 we maintained zero reportable pellet losses to the environment from our operated resin-handling facilities. 

FOOTNOTES:

  1. April 2018 report of Franklin Associates on Life Cycle Impacts of Plastic Packaging Compared to Substitutes (April 2018 Franklin Associates Report); U.S. packaging market; alternatives include steel, aluminum, glass, paper-based packaging, fiber-based textiles, and wood (Table 4-14). Life Cycle Impacts of Plastic Packaging Compared to Substitutes in the United States and Canada: Theoretical Substitution Analysis - American Chemistry Council.
  2. 2023 IEA report “Net Zero Roadmap: A global pathway to keep the 1.5°C Goal in Reach.”
  3. Plastic pollution is growing relentlessly as waste management and recycling fall short, says OECD.
  4. On a global, macroeconomic basis, assuming constant demand.
  5. Pellet loss means plastic waste finding its way into the environment potentially accumulating in the external water environment. (https://www.opcleansweep.org/)

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