A facility for the future
SK Geo Centric, a subsidiary of SK Innovation, has been developing petrochemicals in South Korea for 60 years. The company says its goal is to become the world’s leading plastic recycler by taking advantage of what it calls “vast opportunities” for the development of “urban oilfields”.
To achieve this, the company launched its Waste & Carbon Zero strategy. Through 2021 and through 2022, SK Geo Centric has invested $260 million to continue mechanical and advanced plastics recycling and the necessary infrastructure. In North American markets, SK Geo Centric has invested $56.5 million in Quebec-based Loop Industries, $55 million in PureCycle Technologies of Orlando, Florida, and $10 million with Closed Loop Partners, to New York, to advance circular business models, scalable recycling technologies and material recovery infrastructure in the United States
recycle today recently sat down with SK Geo Centric CEO Na Kyung-Soo to discuss the company’s Waste & Carbon Zero strategy, investments and the plastics industry. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
recycle today (RT): SK Geo Centric has launched its Waste & Carbon Zero strategy. Can you explain in detail what this strategy encompasses and what your specific plastics objectives are?
Na Kyung-Soo (NKS): The SK Geo Centric Plastic & Waste Zero strategy is to recycle 2.5 million tons of plastic produced, which represents 100% of the [company’s] global production volume and increase the proportion of environmentally friendly products, such as ethylene acrylic acid (EAA) copolymers, to 100% by 2027.
To achieve this goal, we are leading a 3R strategy to reduce the use of plastic and replace it with environmentally friendly or recyclable products. Ultimately, SK Geo Centric is committed to halving its carbon emissions from 2019 levels and reaching net zero by 2050.
RT: In your opinion, what are the main obstacles to recycling plastics? How can they be overcome?
NKS: Recycling plastic is inherently difficult and faces many challenges. First, we need to create a social atmosphere of plastic recycling and build a social system to encourage it. We also need to encourage changes in people’s perception of the careless use of plastic.
Another challenge comes in the form of collecting plastics. The amount of recyclable plastic is quite limited based on the variation of plastic types. Each plastic has its own recyclability challenges. Incorrect mixing of discarded plastic with recyclable plastic can disrupt the recycling process. In some cases, items thrown away with recyclable plastics are not plastic. Once contaminated by external elements, especially food, plastic is much more difficult to recycle.
Korea is succeeding in separating plastics from the waste stream, but the Asian region still lags behind. Investments in plastic collection and sorting facilities are needed. It is also essential that the government and citizens engage in efforts in this direction.
By adopting advanced technology, we should increase the speed at which discarded plastic is collected and sorted. Building a circular economy to efficiently collect and recycle plastic requires building more recycling facilities.
Developing a circular plastic economy is not something SK Geo Centric can do alone. As a company, we acquired a 10% stake in Loop Industries. Additionally, we recently joined as an equal partner [in] a joint venture with Loop Industries and Suez to build an “infinite loop” facility.
[The] The SK Geo Centric research and development center is also working to improve post-treatment pyrolysis technology to remove impurities such as chlorine and sulphur.
RT: Many chemical companies that have embraced chemical recycling have been accused of greenwashing. How do you respond to these accusations?
NKS: SK Geo Centric’s commitment to developing a more sustainable business model speaks for itself. We are building the world’s first large-scale plastics recycling hub in Ulsan, South Korea. As a company, we are taking concrete steps to reduce carbon emissions. As part of this effort, SK Geo Centric’s pyrolysis oil carbon reduction process has been certified by the country’s Ministry of Environment for its carbon reduction effect. When processing one ton of plastic, the technology could capture up to 2.7 tons of carbon without incineration.
There is a perception that the chemical recycling process requires a lot of utility and energy, and the residues from the process are not good for the environment. The process often refers to pyrolysis, which can be a competitive alternative to landfill. The latest pyrolysis research includes technology that minimizes energy use and waste recycling.
RT: Recently, your company acquired three different methods of plastic recycling technology, pyrolysis, depolymerization and solvent extraction for polypropylene. How does SK Geo plan to use this technology to achieve its recycling goals?
NKS: In addition to our research scaling pyrolysis technology, we are also working with our partner Loop Industries to scale depolymerization, a process that breaks down large molecular blocks, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) , in reusable basic materials. Additionally, SK Geo Centric and PureCycle announced the location of Asia’s first polypropylene (PP) recycling plant. We are also negotiating a joint venture agreement with PureCycle Technologies and [its] solvent extraction technology to recycle large quantities of PP.
RT: What place does mechanical recycling occupy in your strategy?
NKS: What matters is how smart we can be when it comes to the use of plastics. If we care about the environment, we need to reduce the use of single-use plastics and switch to multi-use plastics. If this is not possible, the obvious alternative is recycling. It is important to use plastics in the longest and smartest way possible. Among the recycling methods, mechanical recycling is the cheapest. However, mechanical recycling has limitations because the materials can only be recycled a limited number of times until degradation occurs, leading to a reduction in quality.
As a method to remove the limitations, we are considering advanced recycling. SK Geo Centric believes the advanced recycling process we are developing could help solve the plastic waste problem. As part of this comprehensive approach, we plan to forge deeper collaborations with North American companies.
RT: How do the company’s North American partnerships with Loop Industries and PureCycle factor into its recycling goals?
NKS: Together with Loop Industries and PureCycle, we are building facilities and scaling up our plastic reduction efforts in Asia and around the world. We are also working to recycle synthetic fibers from clothing containing large amounts of polyester. Boosting applications of technology will increase recycling rates and help achieve our stated goals.
With PureCycle’s technology, we plan to produce 60,000 tonnes of recycled plastic per year from raw PP as part of our urban oilfield strategy. If successful, we could replicate the development model of our Ulsan recycling hub in other markets, including China.
SK Geo Centric partners with Loop and Suez to build an infinite loop manufacturing facility in Europe. The partnership will combine SK’s petrochemical manufacturing, Suez’s resource management expertise and Loop’s breakthrough proprietary technology.
RT: Your company is also developing in Asia. Where will the facilities be located, what will they specialize in and when will they be operational?
NKS: By 2025, a full-scale recycling cluster will be built in Ulsan, close to our existing refining and chemical plants. At full capacity, the Ulsan cluster could recycle around 200,000 tonnes of plastic, which will help capture 500,000 tonnes of carbon emissions per year.
The advantage of the Ulsan recycling cluster is the synergies it generates. For example, various by-products extracted from the recycling process, including PP and PET, can be used as feedstock to support other recycling processes. Some of the waste can also be used to support pyrolysis. Even the final discharges captured by the recycling process can be recovered by the refinery located next to the cluster. Having completed a recycling cluster in Ulsan, we also plan to expand it to China and Southeast Asia.
RT: Where will you source your materials for these installations? What types of materials are you going to target?
NKS: We work with several companies in South Korea and Asia to secure PP and PET materials, including hard-to-recycle colored PET bottles, as part of our continuous efforts to develop our recycling feedstock. Korea generates about 8 million tons of plastic waste per year. Despite this volume, there is still a shortage of recyclable plastic waste. Only when we can secure a stable source of raw materials can we establish a profitable circular economy supported by advanced recycling operating at scale.
Our target raw material comes mainly from municipal recycling facilities. We also plan to use the waste generated by industrial manufacturing processes as a raw material. [The] the most used plastics, PET and PP, will be our priority. Our priority is to recycle flexible films by pyrolysis. For this, advanced recycling will be used to recycle colored PET or polyester fiber bottles that cannot be processed by mechanical recycling.
RT: Why is it important to invest in plastic recycling and the circular economy of plastics?
NKS: A circular plastic economy is fundamental to solving the problem of plastic waste. It is difficult for us to create a plastic circulatory system on our own. We found that the Closed Loop Partners (CLP) fund shares the same values as us. The CLP Fund, which brings together companies invested in eco-responsible businesses, has also accelerated the implementation of a circular economy.
Plastic recycling is in its early stages of rapid development. SK Geo Centric looks forward to developing new technologies and business opportunities that the CLP Fund could help foster. We look forward to cooperating with different stakeholders and hope to find opportunities for new technologies.