As the most important investment in European chemistry over the past 25 years, Project ONE has received a lot of attention from stakeholders. A debate that INEOS likes to engage in, based on facts and figures.
Does Project ONE’s output go mainly to disposable products?
Project ONE produces ethylene and propylene, gaseous substances that are the building blocks of chemistry. On the basis of these substances, further down the production chain, products will be made that are inextricably linked to our contemporary life. Just think about it:
- Personal care products such as contact lenses, eyewear, toothbrushes, and cosmetics.
- Electronics such as mobile phones, computers, and coffee machines.
- Essential utilities and applications for our homes such as pipes for transporting drinking water or gas, window frames and doors.
- Healthcare applications such as mouth masks, face shields, syringes, medications and blood/plasma bags.
- Things we use in our leisure time, such as sports equipment and clothing, outdoor furniture, and a TV.
- Products that contribute to a sustainable society such as insulation materials, lightweight parts for cars, solar panels, lubricants for wind turbines, and wind turbine blades.
Most of the INEOS Group’s production is for such applications in construction, automotive, household appliances and the like. About one quarter of the final products go in to packaging for the food industry.
Packaging is sometimes vilified, but it is important to improve the safety and shelf life of food products. For example, the packaging of a cucumber improves its shelf life by about 11 days. Because there is less food waste, the packaging saves 5 times as much CO2 as was needed to produce it. Alternatives to plastic packaging, such as paper, glass and aluminum, use more resources such as energy and water, and may also require the use of plastics to deliver the required performance. This can result in higher CO2 emissions (see TED-talk by UGent professor Kim Ragaert).
Shouldn’t we focus more on recycling instead of producing new plastics?
INEOS is strongly committed to reduce plastic waste. It is not the plastics themselves that are the problem, but the fact that they are thrown away in to the environment, sent to landfill, or incinerated. According to INEOS’ vision, we have to handle plastics with care, precisely because they are such valuable materials. That’s why INEOS invests heavily to support the recycling of plastics. In this way, all polymers produced by us (such as polyethylene and polypropylene produced on the basis of Project ONE-output) can be fully recycled.
INEOS is investing to support different forms of recycling. We develop products that lend themselves to mechanical recycling so that recycled material can also be used for high-quality applications, and we incorporate recycled plastics in to our products. We invest in the development of our processes to use bio-based raw materials or waste plastics as raw materials for new plastics. Advanced recycling (also called chemical recycling) is a developing technology. As we commercialize this technology, we will be able to produce more plastic from recycled products, creating a market for waste plastic.
All of this fits in with our commitment of the INEOS Pledge to transform plastics into a valuable material. In doing so, we want to integrate 325,000 tons of recycled products back into production processes by 2024, make 100 percent of our plastics recyclable, and offer a plastic mix with up to half recycled plate. This in cooperation with the brands that market these plastics.
Here are some concrete examples:
- Upgrading plastics for successful combination with recycled material Each time a polymer (such as polyethylene and polypropylene) is mechanically recycled, the quality of the material decreases. This is why these recyclates are usually used in low performance and rather inexpensive end applications such as flower pots and garbage bags. The goal of INEOS is to increase the value of recycled polymers so that they are equivalent to ‘virgin’ plastics. In our research centre in Neder-Over-Heembeek we have succeeded in making products that meet the demanding performance characteristics required by our customers, whilst containing more than 50% of recycled plastic. These products are now fully commercialised under our Recyl-IN brand name.
- Advanced (chemical) recycling of polyethylene and polypropylene. Instead of making plastics based on naphtha (from crude oil), INEOS has started a partnership with the recycling company Plastic Energy to break down used polyethylene and polypropylene to their base molecules so that they can be reused as a new feedstock. After first successful tests in 2020, INEOS and Plastic Energy are now developing a project to build a new installation that can carry out this process on a large scale.
- Depolymerization of styrene. INEOS Styrolution has already made a breakthrough for chemical recycling by depolymerizing polystyrene waste: laboratory scale production of new polystyrene based on recycled styrene monomers. For example, old yoghurt jars can be reused half in new products. This happens at the site of Styrolution in Antwerp, the largest polystyrene installation in Europe. Soon a partnership will be entered into with waste processing company INDAVER whereby polystyrene waste will be recycled into pure styrene monomers. Already in 2022, a demo plant will be operational that will be able to recycle 15,000 tons. This project fits in Styrolution’s efforts to make plastic products based on waste or renewable raw materials.
Is there a demand for the products of Project ONE?
The market forecasts an average annual growth in demand for ethylene of 4% over the next five years. According to IHS Market forecasts, ethylene will be imported into Europe for the next 5 years.
Even in the International Energy Agency (IEA) sustainable scenario1, the demand for basic chemicals such as ethylene and propylene will increase by about 40 percent between 2017 and 2050.2 This is under the influence of a rising world population, rising prosperity and social evolutions (e.g. less demand for disposable plastics such as plastic bags, more demand for electric car components).
This sustainable scenario, with fewer emissions and more recycling, reduces the demand for new basic chemicals by 7 percent compared to the baseline scenario. Considerable efforts in recycling are therefore useful, but not sufficient to meet market demand. The production of new ethylene and propylene, as Project ONE will do, provides an answer to society’s need for these basic building blocks.
- The Clean Tech Scenario (CTS) by 2050 includes a 45% reduction in direct CO2 emissions from chemistry despite a 40% increase in demand for basic chemicals. It also includes a (nearly) tripling of the global average collection rate of plastic waste.
- The Future of Petrochemicals, IEA
Are there no alternative raw materials for the shale gas from the United States that Project ONE will use?
The ethane that Project ONE will convert into ethylene is a by-product of shale gas extraction in the United States. The ethane is extracted from the natural gas which is used for heating in the United States, among other things.
Thanks to this ethane, and to state-of-the-art production techniques, Project ONE’s CO2 emissions will be less than half those of comparable installations (these run mainly on oil (naphtha) or coal). This will allow us to meet the growing demand for ethylene and propylene worldwide, with much lower emissions than if we were dependent on oil.
In that context, reference is also sometimes made to methane emissions from shale gas extraction. However, shale gas also scores better than naphtha in this respect. New research shows that there is a 0.27 percent loss of methane during the extraction of gas and oil in the North Sea, while this is between 0.06 percent and 0.04 percent for American producers of shale gas, such as EQT, Antero and Range Resources.
In addition, the supply of ethane from conventional natural gas extraction in the North Sea is depleting. Ethane as a by-product of shale gas extraction is available and can be valorized by the chemical industry as a raw material for ethylene production. Previously, it was often flared off (burned at source) because it had no commercial use and because of its high calorific properties, it had to be isolated from the methane gas massively used for heating in the USA. Naphtha (crude oil) is an alternative to ethane. A comparison of ethylene production ‘from well to fence’ based on naphtha versus ethane shows that the latter has a footprint that is substantially lower than that of naphtha.
Today, there is no fully-fledged biological alternative to ethane. At least 2.5 million tons of ethanol is needed to produce one and a half million tons of ethylene. By way of comparison: sugar beets produce 5000 liters of ethanol per hectare or 3.95 metric tons of ethanol/hectare. In other words, 633 000 ha of sugar beet are needed to feed an ethane cracker to produce one and a half million ethylene. According to Statbel data, the Flemish Region had 622 000 ha of agricultural land at its disposal in 2019. This integral area would not be sufficient on its own and would mean that this land could not be used for food production.
In time, for example, propane from biodiesel could become an alternative to propylene production. Project ONE could use this as feedstock. But in order to provide Project ONE with sufficient biopropane, for example, you would have to plant at least 7,500 km2 of land, that is more than half of Flanders, with rapeseed. Given the unavailability of such quantities, biodiesel is currently not a robust alternative.
Should INEOS not produce more bio-based plastics?
The introduction of bio-based raw materials for the production of plastics is a very promising evolution. Although it is not yet possible to make all plastics from bio-based raw materials, we are fully committed to increasing the amount of bio-based raw materials we use, especially in Belgium:
- Biovyn, production of PVC from biomass: at our INOVYN site in Jemeppe, we have made it possible to produce PVC with ethylene produced from a biomass that does not compete with food production. In this way, there is a reduction of CO2 emissions of more than 90 percent compared to production from fossil raw materials. This supply chain has been fully certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB), an independent third party.
- Bio-attribution of renewable raw materials: ‘bio-attribution’ expresses the extent to which fossil raw materials have been replaced by renewable or bio-based raw materials. Ineos O&P North Lillo offers a range of Bio-Attributed Olefins and Polyolefins, based on renewable bio-based raw materials that do not compete with food production. Their supply chain is fully certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB), an independent third party.
Will Project ONE receive government support?
We have to make a distinction between subsidies and guarantees.
- Subsidies. To date, no subsidies for Project ONE have been paid out by the government. There are, however, a number of support possibilities from the Flemish government for specific efforts. INEOS must meet the conditions like any other company, including the European and Flemish regulations.
- If in the future there will be subsidies, this will be for training and education of employees or the limitation of the environmental impact, and this according to the government regulations that are the same for all companies. In this way, INEOS would be able to claim one-off support from the Flemish Agency for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Vlaio) for Project ONE totaling a maximum of 8 million euros.
- In addition, INEOS can receive up to 8 million euros annually for its research and development efforts on all its sites (not only Project ONE)..
- Guarantees. This is a system in which the Flemish government (via PMV) supports certain financial risks of companies. These are also transparent and uniform procedures for all companies that want to make use of them. They are market-based financial instruments that the government uses to make crucial investments in the economic fabric of Flanders succeed. Here, too, conditions are attached for the company, for example in terms of employment in Flanders. Such guarantees are also internationally customary financial instruments for projects of this nature.
Does the arrival of Project ONE add new virgin plastic capacity? Doesn’t this put a brake on the growth of the recycling market?
The installations of Project ONE will produce the basic building blocks of chemistry, ethylene and propylene, not plastic pellets. As a result, no additional capacity of new plastics will be put on the market. By producing these building block materials itself, INEOS replaces the ethylene and propylene that it would otherwise have to buy from other producers of ethylene and propylene with a lower ecological footprint.
It is important to know that virgin (new) plastics can be an ‘enabler’ in the recycling process: they enable the addition of recycled material.
Polyolefins, for example, are among the easiest plastics to recycle. It is true that 100% recycled polyolefins do not perform well without the addition of ‘virgin’ (new) plastics. Every time a polymer is recycled, there is a loss of intrinsic properties (mechanical properties such as impact resistance, tensile strength, etc,…). As a result, recycled plastic is usually used for the production of lower quality and rather low-end applications such as flower pots, garbage bags, simple irrigation pipes (downcycling). In combination with high performance virgin polymers, recycled plastic can then be used in a much wider range of applications with higher value
The goal of INEOS is to enable recycled plastic to access a much larger market, with much higher value.
How do we do this? We have developed a high performance booster polymer in our R&D center in Neder-Over-Heembeek that fully compensates the loss of properties of recycled material. This enables us to bring compounds on the market that consist of 50% recycled polymer and that match the quality of a 100% new product.
The other problem with recycled plastics is that they may have become contaminated during use, waste collection, and processing. Therefore, recycled plastics are not suitable for medical applications, or food and beverage packaging. As a result, new polymer is still needed to keep medical, food and beverage products safely packaged. But even for these very demanding applications, we are working on a solution with advanced recycling in which plastic waste is converted back into the raw material (monomers)… By heating plastic waste at a high temperature (pyrolysis) the raw material for polyolefins can be released. However, this is a major technical challenge and still under development.