About 5 to 10 percent of plastic waste is recycled today (depending on the study), but Cyclyx, who calls itself a supply chain innovation company, believes it’s found a way to potentially bump that rate to 90 percent – in time.
Through years of research Cyclyx has figured out how to classify and identify waste plastics by their chemical makeup (rather than by object type), which will be the first step in its work to divert more material and make more products from it.
Joe Vaillancourt, Cyclyx CEO, explains: “Plastics’ chemical makeup is complex. We’ve seen thousands of compounds in one 10-pound sample of mixed plastics. Now that we understand these compounds, we can tell how to mix different postconsumer plastics to have a stable chemistry. We can create multiple ‘recipes,’ and each one can work in several applications. So, we are helping find new product pathways for what would otherwise get landfilled.”
The company is launching its first processing facility in partnership with ExxonMobil, LyondellBasell, and the city of Houston in 2024. Cyclyx will take Houston’s plastic waste and prepare feedstock recipes from it, based on chemical composition, customized to ExxonMobil and LyondellBasell’s specifications. The two giant petrochemical companies will feed the material into their chemical (and/or mechanical) recycling systems and sell the resulting polymers to converters.
The Greater Houston area facility will have capacity to sort and recompound 150,000 metric tons of plastic feedstock a year, which will carry the International Sustainability & Carbon PLUS certification (ISCC).
The goal is to process 650,000 tons a year by 2026 at multiple facilities. The demand is there; and then some.
LyondellBasell aims to crank out 2 million metric tons of recycled and renewable-based polymers annually by 2030. ExxonMobil’s ambition is to build up to 500,000 metric tons of annual capacity by late 2026.
The two corporations have joined Cyclyx and the city of Houston to brainstorm ways to tap into more and different types of waste plastics, and ways to best aggregate the material. A large focus has been on community engagement, piloting approaches to motivate residents to separate their plastic waste from what goes in their garbage bins, to be sent Cyclyx’s way.
One of the earliest trials is a takeback program in the community of Kingwood, where residents put their plastic waste in bags and leave it at a local drop off center. It’s picked up, baled, and aggregated by an intermediary, then moves on to Cyclyx once there’s enough volume. In the first two months Kingwood tripled the weight of recovered plastic, and Vaillancourt estimates about 90 percent of it can be converted to new product.
Another trial to recover materials will soon be introduced in several Houston area schools. Students will be incentivized to bring in bagged plastic trash from home. The intention is to bring the rewards-based model to all 200-plus schools across the district. And a similar initiative is in the works with local retailers to incentivize them to accept waste plastics.
Once Houston scales collections through these and similar programs, detailed outcomes will be reported, disclosing participation rates, landfill diversion, transportation-related emissions, percent recovered by type, and percent of recyclability among metrics.
“Through these diversion initiatives we want to determine a couple of things. We want to know which programs yield the most engagement, which equals most recovered plastics. We also want to determine which programs allow us to move the most plastics with the lowest environmental impact,” Vaillancourt says.
Today Cyclyx sources and blends from multiple generators, mainly in the Gulf Coast, to build out supply. Artificial intelligence will enable modeling to determine what plastics from which sources can be mixed to customize largest possible quantities. The AI will also help determine which supplies can be mixed for multiple facilities within a region to reduce carbon impact tied to delivering products.
Vaillancourt’s hope and expectation is to have commitments to build five to 10 more plants in the next 18 to 24 months. He envisions custom-designed facilities funded by, and dedicated to, individual conglomerates and can name none at this time, but mentions “ongoing activity with many of the large petrochemical companies.”
“We have to show we can do it. But we think we can be successful in working with companies who are going after a product pathway who have a technology in place and a known demand.
I don’t have to first build a facility, find the feedstock, then a market. Rather I have a customized demand pull.”
An early vision was to solely support chemical recycling, but Vaillancourt’s had a surprise: about 25 percent of interest is from the mechanical recycling market, which is a growing part of the business.
Cyclyx compounds different plastics that he says mechanical recyclers don’t traditionally work with.
“They can’t mix the materials because they don’t know what’s in them, but we can tell them. And we can compound specific composites in a similar way as for chemical recyclers that fits their material specifications.”
Both ExxonMobil and LyondellBasell have invested in the new Houston facility, which has an estimated total cost of $100M.
ExxonMobil’s interest is in finding feedstock for its chemical recycling facility in Baytown, Texas, and for similar operations that it plans to invest in globally in the near future.
“Now we are selling to some of the world’s largest converters like Berry Global and Amcor who sell to major brands, and those brands are looking for more recycled content.
“We are trying to expand our capacity to satisfy that growing need,” says Dave Andrew, ExxonMobil vice president of New Market Development.
For now, the corporation uses existing sorting and processing infrastructure to prepare materials at the Baytown facility, breaking down mixed plastic to basic building blocks that are rebuilt into raw materials to make new plastics. Andrew describes the new Cyclyx facility with processing capabilities to work with all plastics as “our next step.”
“We see this partnership as a way to unlock feedstock supply, helping us access more plastic that otherwise would go to landfill, and directing it to us and others doing advanced [aka chemical] and mechanical recycling. If we prove this [model] out in Houston, it can serve as a model for what we can do in other cities and communities.”
Cyclyx is working with LyondellBasell to understand its needs and develop technical specifications to meet those needs; which will include producing both mechanical and advanced recyclate; it’s focusing on both as it aims to grow its global capacity.
“We are pursuing opportunities to help capture more plastic waste from landfills in order to make it suitable for recycling,” says Yvonne van der Laan, executive vice president of circular and low-carbon solutions at LyondellBasell. She describes the agreement as “a perfect example” of how collaboration across the value chain can help close gaps to enable a circular economy.
Mark Wilfalk, City of Houston solid waste management director, says over the years he’s been asked to consider adjusting recycling programs to collect non-traditional commodities to try and improve diversion rates.
“Unfortunately, many of those concepts were either difficult to implement or simply not sustainable. I believe Cyclyx and [collaborators] have created a reliable solution to address an important need in our communities. Their ability to ‘close the loop’ by processing a variety of hard to recycle post-consumer products will reduce litter, improve the City of Houston’s waste diversion rate, and preserve our environment,” he says.
Vaillancourt’s hope is that experiments, like those supported through this collaboration among supply chain partners, will have far-reaching impact in time.
“There’s huge complexity in the chemistry of plastics that I think we are starting to figure out. By being able to test new plastics we hope to come up with data and insight to show there’s a lot more that can go in the bin and be recycled. If that’s true, it should change recycling programs – both voluntary and legislated ones—so any waste plastic is welcome.”