Plastics, chemical industries miles ahead in new circular economy

By Steve Kratz, President, Pennsylvania Chemical Industry Council

January 2023

 

Environmental stewardship and sustainability aren’t routinely spoken in the same breath as the plastics and chemicals industries in general circles. But as members of the Pennsylvania Chemical Industry Council are proving, our industry is leading the charge with innovations in circular manufacturing, production and advanced recycling to create a more sustainable, energy-efficient future.

With more than 30 years serving as the voice of chemical and related industries in the Keystone State, PCIC has supported the growth of the industry largely by highlighting the products our members make and the services they provide that are indispensable to our way of life. Plastics are essential to harnessing renewable energy sources, building more fuel-efficient cars, designing energy-smart buildings and even producing lighter running shoes. We also learned early in the pandemic how critical our industry is as the building block for nearly every medical and health care product we use, ranging from life-saving equipment and infection-protection materials to PPE, disinfectants and sanitizers, and more.

Keenly aware of their vital role in our everyday lives, PCIC members are leading the charge to advance new innovations with a focus on sustainability, circularity and establishing low- or no-carbon goals.

Here’s a glance at the innovations of a few of our members:

Encina Development Group aims to transform end-of-life plastics into their original base forms that can be used to make new plastics. With plans to build its first commercial-scale facility in Point Township, Pennsylvania, Encina is expected to divert upward of 450,000 metric tons of plastic waste materials from being landfilled, incinerated or ending up in our streets, rivers and oceans. It’s a welcome technology — up to 85% of our plastics aren’t recycled and 30 million rural and 15 million suburban households lack curbside recycling

3M launches about 1,000 new products every year and has long since met its goal of building sustainability into 100% of them through measures such as using renewable materials and reducing, eliminating or reformulating plastic packaging. Just a few examples of its products in this vein range from smog-reducing granules for roof shingles and recyclable padded mailers to retroreflective highway sign sheeting and wet-reflective pavement markings. 3M aims to achieve carbon neutrality in its operations by 2050.

Covestro produces advanced polymers and high-performance plastics globally. Its many sustainability moves include making concrete floor coatings that are better for both the interior and exterior environment and that last three to four times longer than typical floor coating products; using bio-based raw materials as hardeners for automotive paints; and capturing and using carbon dioxide in raw materials that are used in mattresses, car interiors and sports flooring. Covestro hopes to hit net zero emissions from its own production and from purchased energy by 2035.

Other examples include LANXESS recycling polycarbonate water bottles to derive materials needed to make everyday items such as laptop covers. BASF has entered into two power agreements, totaling 250 megawatts, that will offset more than 20 manufacturing sites in the U.S. with solar and wind power. DOW is investing in partnerships to secure circular feedstocks derived from advanced recycling materials.

The list goes on. We are constantly sharing these great member stories but, hopefully, the message is clear: PCIC members are at the forefront of innovation and investment in new technologies to advance sustainability and a brighter environmental future.

Steve Kratz is a senior director at Bravo Group as well as president of the Pennsylvania Chemical Industry Council. To read more about the council’s work, click here.

It's hard to believe it was just last March that COVID-19 took hold in our state. This past year has taken a physical, mental and emotional toll on so many. In spite of and through those challenges, communities came together, leaders created solutions and there have been so many inspiring stories from Pennsylvania - particularly from the state's chemical industry. 

Of course, we may be biased, so we'll let their work and generous acts over the last year tell the story and others share their thoughts. 

RAMPING UP PRODUCTION

From disinfectants and wipes to ventilators, test tubes and vaccines, chemicals are the building blocks, and chemistry the starting point, for almost every product used to manage COVID-19. Pennsylvania ranks eighth nationally in manufacturing, with chemicals as the top sector. This industry exports $8.9 billion annually in manufactured goods, supplying the regional, national and global healthcare markets.

In March 2020, amid the closure of nonessential businesses, Pennsylvania’s chemical manufacturers pressed play on company crisis action plans, increased production and retrofitted operations to meet the demand for disinfectants and to provide hospitals and health care workers with the medical equipment and intensive care tools needed to treat patients.

In March and April, employees of Braskem, a global petrochemical company, voluntarily lived on-site at their Marcus Hook facility for 28 days, working around the clock to manufacture polypropylene and produce nonwoven fabric to help meet the demand for N95 masks, hospital gowns, hoods and sanitary wipes.

With supplies for disinfectants scarce, Pressure Chemical Co. in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania engaged in several discussions with the Allegheny Health Network to reserve operations scheduling to be on-call for potential sanitizer manufacturing demands, and supplied products to local distilleries in a collaborative effort to increase the region’s sanitizer supply. The company also ramped up production of thermochromic products it supplies for disposable thermometers to help meet the demand for these units.

As part of mitigation efforts, many states, including Pennsylvania, required shields to be installed at retailers where cashiers or clerks interact with the public. Arkema, with its Plexiglas business headquarters in Bristol, Pennsylvania coordinated efforts from Pennsylvania to maximize production at its sheet plants across the country to meet the demand and keep retailers, pharmacies, gas stations and other essential, public-facing businesses open. The company also repurposed a production line at its plant in Geneseo, New York to manufacture 10,000 gallons – enough to fill 110,000 12 oz. bottles – of hand sanitizer solution. This solution, made with the company’s own hydrogen peroxide, was donated to four states the company has key operations in, including Pennsylvania.

“This past year amplified how strong and resilient our essential workers are especially in times of crisis – and chemical manufacturers are no exception,” Acting Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health Alison Beam said. “This network of committed individuals has sacrificed a lot over the last year and that does not go unnoticed. The Wolf Administration continues to navigate through this pandemic by getting more vaccine into arms and advocating to all Pennsylvanians to practice health habits like washing your hands, practicing social distancing and wearing a mask as you continue to serve our communities across the commonwealth.”

As the pandemic and mitigation efforts have evolved, the high demand products and tools have also evolved and manufacturers have kept pace. As vaccine distribution moves forward, Styropek in Monaca, Pennsylvania has ramped up production on its expanded polystyrene resin to manufacture polystyrene coolers to protect the vaccines in transit and distribution.  

GIVING LOCALLY

Pennsylvania’s chemical manufacturers have made significant global and state contributions in products over the last year, and they are helping to meet the needs of their local communities.

3M’s manufacturing team in Aston, Pennsylvania donated boxes of safety glasses to Einstein Medical Center and MossRehab in Philadelphia. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, 3M has doubled its annual global output of N95 respirators to over 2 billion; and produces nearly 100 million per month in the United States.

Albemarle donated 40 liters of Isopropyl Alcohol to their local Tyrone Community Pharmacy for hand sanitizer production. The company also purchased and donated hand sanitizer to local AMED (Ambulance Service), N95 masks to the Tyrone Police Department, and goggles and face shields to the Tyrone Hospital.

"The COVID-19 pandemic created extraordinary supply chain challenges for hospitals trying to secure the personal protective equipment and resources needed to respond to the crisis,” said Andy Carter, President and CEO, for The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania (HAP). “Seeing the urgent need for supplies, Pennsylvania’s state government, manufacturing, and life sciences organizations came together to retool their operations and support the health care community during this difficult time. This collaboration early on during the pandemic made a huge difference in the availability of resources, which directly helped our patients and health care workers; and it will pay dividends in the future.”

Covestro, with its North American headquarters in Pittsburgh, donated $67,500 to local food programs experiencing a significant increase in need.

Dow, with manufacturing and research and development sites in Bristol, Collegeville and Croydon, Pennsylvania, retrofitted an existing facility to produce hand sanitizer to meet demand early on. Dow also donated $3 million to COVID-19 efforts — $2 million to assist with immediate impacts and $1 million to build community resilience in the recovery phase.

DuPont, with a manufacturing facility in Towanda, donated 100 cases of Tyvek® protective suits to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to distribute to health care workers with the highest need statewide.

LANXESS, a specialty chemical firm with its head office for the Americas region in Pittsburgh, provided boxes of latex gloves, lab coats and masks to the Allegheny County Public Works Department.

PPG, with headquarters in Pittsburgh, donated more than 20,000 N95 masks to UPMC and Allegheny Health Network hospitals.

Shell Polymers partnered with the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce in May to donate care packages with COVID-19 safety items, household essentials, food and gas cards to local families and individuals in need. The company also helped fund lunches to front-line workers and made donations to local organizations, including the Beaver County YMCA, Meals on Wheels, the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh and local hospitals. In September, through its partnership with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Shell Polymers procured a truckload of food and other supplies from Convoy of Hope and set up a drive-thru site to distribute food and other disaster relief supplies to more than 1,000 families in Beaver County. Additionally, with the donation of thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer, close to one thousand N95 masks, gloves and face shields to health care organizations, Shell continues to play a role in ensuring Pennsylvania’s frontline workers have the necessary equipment to safely carry on with their essential work.

“It’s often an afterthought where the products we use every day originate until we can’t get them. This pandemic has demonstrated how critical the role is that these companies play in the health and safety of our communities and how fortunate we are to have a strong base here in Pennsylvania, reducing our reliance on imported products,” said Pennsylvania Chemical Industry Council President, Abby Foster. “We thank them for their leadership and innovation in getting the job done safely in extraordinary circumstances to meet demand, while also caring for their local communities.”  

Pennsylvania's chemical manufacturing sector has been fully operational throughout the pandemic and these frontline workers will be eligible to receive the vaccine in Phase 1B under the state's vaccination plan so they may continue to provide essential products and services to Pennsylvania.

How can we do more with less?

That question is not about reducing costs, it’s about how we can use less resources, while still maintaining the quality of life to which we are accustomed.  

Plastic products play a significant role in our daily lives -- both with the products we physically touch and utilize and those at work behind the scenes. Increasingly, these products are also playing an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and our overall impacts on the environment. For example, plastic-based building materials, such as insulation and sealants, improve energy efficiency and reduce energy consumption in buildings, and plastic parts reduce vehicle weights, resulting in improved fuel economy and reduced emissions. Across industry sectors plastic innovations are reducing our impact on the environment.

In the past, how these products are managed after use has presented a challenge where innovations in technology and industry are now helping to provide a solution. Advanced recycling technologies utilize post-use plastics, which may otherwise be landfilled, as feedstock to create new products.  

On November 25, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill into law to ensure companies utilizing these technologies are appropriately regulated as manufacturers and not waste facilities in Pennsylvania.

"Addressing climate change is one of the most important issues that we face, and that is why my administration has made it a top priority to support comprehensive efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and waste, including the growing challenge of reducing plastic waste in landfills," Wolf said. "This measure offers an innovative way to manage hard-to-recycle plastics, which not only will reduce waste but also support an emerging recycling industry."

House Bill 1808, now Act 127, was introduced by Rep. Ryan Mackenzie (PA-134) to provide regulatory certainty for companies considering investments in Pennsylvania. The legislation also makes clear that these facilities are not taking in or handling municipal waste, and are fully compliant with all Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Environmental Protection Agency permitting requirements.

“Advanced recycling presents an emerging market in the United States, and we have seen these facilities successfully deployed at a commercial scale in other states over the last seven years,” Mackenzie said. “They are having a tremendous impact in their communities, reducing waste in the surrounding regions while demonstrating a business model that does more with less. I look forward to welcoming this industry to our state and seeing Pennsylvania’s economy and environment benefit.”

Successful recycling infrastructure already exists for plastics labeled Nos. 1-2, such as soda bottles and milk jugs. These advanced recycling operations are focused on plastics Nos. 3-7, such as candy wrappers, bags and packaging, which are a burden on municipal recycling programs because they cannot be recycled in the existing mechanical recycling infrastructure. Advanced recycling technologies will not replace existing recycling infrastructure but rather work in concert with it. 

"Over the last decade, recycling tonnages and public demand for services have increased significantly while recycling infrastructure, technology and waste management teams work to keep up,” said Holly Vogt, Beaver County Department of Waste Management’s director and sustainability/recycling coordinator. “Many haulers are collecting only select plastics curbside due to limited end users. These advanced recycling technologies have created a new end-use market for plastics that have previously been a challenge to recycle. We look forward to offering new services to our customers and partnering with companies to supplement our operations and reduce the footprint of waste by diverting valuable materials. This is an exciting opportunity to expand and enhance recycling both locally and beyond."  

While this technology may be new to Pennsylvania, across the country, private companies are already manufacturing post-use plastics at a commercial scale into a versatile mix of new chemicals, feedstocks, products and more environmentally friendly transportation fuels. For example, Shell Chemicals is using a liquid feedstock made from plastic waste, supplied by Nexus Fuels, in its chemical plant in Norco, LA to make a range of new products and Brightmark recently initiated a national site search for their next $1 billion advanced plastic recycling facility. In April, Brightmark narrowed its search and Pennsylvania is one of seven states still in the running. This facility is expected to manufacture 200,000 tons of waste plastics annually into new products. The regulatory certainty provided this legislation will provide companies an additional reason to consider an investment in Pennsylvania.

The process is basic chemistry. Plastics Nos. 3-7 are delivered for processing, any remaining contaminants are removed, and the plastics are heated, causing a change in chemical composition, and then cooled and condensed into feedstock for new petroleum-based products. This is not incineration as combustion does not occur because oxygen is absent from the closed loop process. 

“Plastics play a critical role in modern society and are too valuable to be thrown away or burned,” said Abby Foster, president of the Pennsylvania Chemical Industry Council. “These technologies extend the product life cycle and are providing a free market solution to help address a global and domestic challenge of waste management. Pennsylvania is fortunate to have a strong and growing petrochemical and plastics market, and potentially now an advanced recycling market to make a truly circular economy for plastics here in the commonwealth.”  

According to the American Chemistry Council, converting just 25 percent of the recoverable post-use plastics in Pennsylvania could support 10 advanced recycling manufacturing facilities, resulting in $314 million in new economic output annually.

 

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