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 transform into the world's leading plastic recycler by leveraging what it calls “vast opportunities” for the development of "urban oil fields.”
To achieve this, the company has launched its Waste & Carbon Zero strategy. Through 2021 and into 2022, SK Geo Centric has invested $260 million to further mechanical and advanced recycling of plastics and the necessary infrastructure. In the 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, New York City, to advance circular business models, scalable recycling technologies and material recovery infrastructure in the U.S.
Recycling Today recently spoke with SK Geo Centric CEO Na Kyung-Soo to discuss the company's Waste & Carbon Zero strategy, its investments and the plastic industry. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Recycling 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 goals around plastics are?
Na Kyung-Soo (NKS): The SK Geo Centric Plastic & Waste Zero strategy is to recycle 2.5 million tons of produced plastic, accounting for 100 percent of the [company’s] global production volume, and expand the proportion of eco-friendly products, such as ethylene and acrylic acid (EAA) copolymers, to 100 percent by 2027.
To meet this goal, we are running a 3R strategy to reduce plastic usage and replace it with eco-friendly or recyclable products. Ultimately, SK Geo Centric is committed to reducing its carbon emissions by half compared with 2019 levels and achieving a net zero target by 2050.
RT: What do you believe the biggest hurdles in plastics recycling are? How can they be overcome?
NKS: Recycling plastic is inherently difficult and faces numerous challenges. Firstly, we need to create a social atmosphere of recycling plastic and build a social system to encourage it. We should also drive the shifts in people’s perception of the reckless use of plastic.
Another challenge comes in the form of collecting plastics. The amount of plastic that is recyclable is quite limited based on the variation in the types of plastic. Each plastic has its own set of challenges when it comes to recyclability. Incorrectly discarded plastic mixing with recyclable plastic can disrupt the recycling process. In some cases, items discarded with plastic recyclables are not plastic. Once contaminated by outside elements, including food, plastic is much more difficult to recycle.
Korea is good at separating plastics from the waste stream, but the Asian region is still lagging. Investments in facilities to collect and sort plastics are needed. It is also essential that the government and citizens should be engaged in efforts to do that.
By adopting great technology, we should increase the rate at which discarded plastic is collected and sorted. Establishing a circular economy to efficiently collect and recycle plastic requires the construction of more recycling facilities.
Developing a plastic circular economy is not something SK Geo Centric can do alone. As a company, we have acquired a 10 percent equity 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] SK Geo Centric Research and Development Center is also working to improve postprocessing pyrolysis technology to remove impurities like chlorine and sulfur.
RT: Many chemical companies that have embraced chemical recycling have been accused of greenwashing. How do you respond to those 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 cluster 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 was certified by the country’s Ministry of Environment for its carbon reduction effect. When processing 1 ton of plastic, the technology could capture as much as 2.7 tons of carbon without incineration.
There is a perception that the chemical recycling process requires a lot of utility and energy, and residues from the process are not good for the environment. The process often refers to pyrolysis, which can be a competitive solution compared to landfilling. The latest research in pyrolysis includes technology that allows for minimizing the use of energy and recycling of residues.
RT: Recently, your company acquired three different methods of plastics recycling, pyrolysis, depolymerization and solvent extraction technology for polypropylene. How does SK Geo plan to use this technology to meet its recycling goals?
NKS: As well as 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), into 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 amounts of PP.
RT: What role does mechanical recycling play 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 shift toward multiuse plastics. If that is not possible, the obvious alternative is recycling. It’s important to use plastics in the longest possible and smartest way. Among the recycling methods, mechanical recycling is the cheapest. However, mechanical recycling has limitations because materials can only be recycled a limited number of times until degradation happens, causing a reduction in quality.
As a method to remove the limitations, we are considering advanced recycling. SK Geo Centric believes that the advanced recycling process we are developing could help solve the plastic waste problem. As part of this global approach, we anticipate forging 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: With Loop Industries and PureCycle, we are building facilities and ramping up plastic reduction efforts across Asia and globally. We are also working to recycle the synthetic fibers from clothes containing large amounts of polyester. Boosting the technology’s applications will increase recycling rates and help achieve our stated goals.
With PureCycle’s technology, we anticipate producing 60,000 tons of recycled plastic annually from raw PP material as part of our urban oil field strategy. If successful, we could replicate the model driving the development of our Ulsan recycling cluster to other markets, including China.
SK Geo Centric is partnering 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 expanding into Asia. Where will the facilities be located, what will they specialize in and when will they be operational?
NKS: By 2025, a large-scale recycle cluster will be built in Ulsan, near our existing refining and chemical plants. At full capacity, the Ulsan cluster could recycle about 200,000 tons of plastic, which will help capture 500,000 tons of carbon emissions annually.
The advantage of the Ulsan recycling cluster is the synergies it unlocks. For example, various byproducts 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 utilized by the refinery located next to the cluster. Having a recycling cluster completed in Ulsan, we are also considering expanding it into China and Southeast Asia.
RT: Where will you source the material for these facilities? What types of materials will you be targeting?
NKS: We are working with several companies in South Korea and Asia to secure PP materials and PET, including hard-to-recycle colored PET bottles, as part of our ongoing effort to grow our recycling feedstock. Korea generates about 8 million tons of plastic waste annually. Despite that volume, there is still a shortage of recyclable-ready plastic waste. Only when we can secure a stable source of raw material will we be able to establish a profitable circular economy underpinned by advanced recycling operating at scale.
Our target feedstock is mostly from municipal recycling facilities. We are also considering using waste generated from industrial manufacturing processes as feedstock. [The] most commonly used plastics, PET and PP, will be our priority. Our priority is to recycle flexible films by pyrolysis. To that end, advanced recycling will be used to recycle colored PET bottles or polyester fiber that cannot be processed by mechanical recycling.
RT: Why is it important to invest in recycling plastic and the circular economy of plastics?
NKS: A plastic circular economy is fundamental to solving the plastic waste problem. It is difficult for us to create a plastic circulatory system alone. We found the Closed Loop Partners (CLP) Fund shares the same values with us. The CLP Fund, which brings together companies invested in eco-friendly businesses, has also accelerated the establishment of a circular economy.
Plastic recycling is in the early stage 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 expect to find opportunities for new technology.