March 2020


Executive Viewpoint: Sustainability: Initiatives, innovation and solutions to crucial challenges

Hydrocarbon Processing's Editor-in-Chief/Associate Publisher, Lee Nichols, was pleased to speak with Jim Becker (JB), Vice President, Polymers and Sustainability for Chevron Phillips Chemical (CP Chem).

Becker, J., Chevron Phillips Chemical

Hydrocarbon Processing’s Editor-in-Chief/Associate Publisher, Lee Nichols, was pleased to speak with Jim Becker (JB), Vice President, Polymers and Sustainability for Chevron Phillips Chemical (CP Chem). The following Q&A provides insights on CP Chem’s sustainability initiatives, plastic waste bans around the world, advances in chemical recycling technologies and solutions to help mitigate plastic waste around the world.

HP: Can you detail CP Chem’s sustainability initiatives?

JB: The first thing we want to acknowledge is that plastics and polymers do a lot of good things in the world. They save energy, reduce weight, preserve food and are used in several medical applications, among others. However, unmanaged plastic waste does not belong in the environment.

Our company is trying to eliminate unmanaged plastic waste with several initiatives. We are a founding member of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW). This organization—comprised of more than 40 companies across the entire supply chain—has a simple mission: To end plastic waste in the environment. The organization is actively being built now, so the world will start to see a lot of new initiatives coming out of this alliance to address and mitigate plastic waste—approximately $1.5 B has been committed to this issue by the AEPW.

One interesting initiative CP Chem is a member of is Operation Clean Sweep Blue. The enhanced version is a set of processes and programs—everything from engineering design to processes and systems—to ensure that plastic pellets do not leave our manufacturing sites.

Another initiative is helping our customers develop sustainability solutions. For example, if we have a customer who wants to figure out how to increase the percentage of post-consumer resin in their products, CP Chem’s talented polymer chemists can help with that. We are also developing products that will enable manufacturers to thin-gauge products and use less polyethylene.

Finally, we are actively engaged in sustainability advocacy through industry organizations, such as the AEPW, Plastics Europe and the American Chemistry Council, among others.

HP: Why do you think that plastics are a sustainable solution?

JB: A key to this whole puzzle is chemical recycling. If you want to keep plastics out of the environment and landfills, which is the ultimate goal, you can mechanically or chemically recycle it. Mechanical recycling—although it has been very successful—has limits. If you mechanically recycle resin enough times, it deteriorates to a point where you cannot harness the properties to recycle it any more.

We think chemical recycling is an important key to this. Our company is investing resources in developing chemical recycling technologies. This means recycling the material back down to feedstock components, which can then be processed into a virgin resin. This process takes that piece of plastic out of a landfill or the environment, creating a circular approach. Unmanaged plastic waste then becomes a resource. We think that if you do all of these processes right, plastics are a sustainable solution.

HP: Many governments are imposing bans of plastic products. Is this the right strategy?

JB: First, the major trend in plastics demand is growing middle classes around the world, particularly in China and India. A huge economic momentum shift within these countries is leading to this new middle class wanting access to more products comprised of plastics. With the growth in demand, our industry must do a good job with sustainability. We must address the concerns that people rightfully have about unmanaged plastic waste.

However, you must be careful and understand the science behind a strategy on banning plastic products because the substitutes also have an environmental impact. In many cases, as was detailed in a 2016 industry report, some substitutes have a higher environmental impact than plastic.1 We encourage people to make those kinds of decisions based on science and with all the information regarding both plastics and substitutes.

HP: How did CP Chem institutionalize sustainability within your organization?

JB: One of the simple but powerful things we did was work sustainability directly into our company’s strategy. We do it in two places. First, we have a new tagline: Performance by design, caring by choice. Combined with the company’s tagline is a direct corporate strategy of proactively helping the world find solutions to sustainability.

Secondly, we have created resources to address sustainability, along with raising the profile of sustainability to the Vice President level, with elevated sustainability positions in Asia, Europe and the U.S., as well as a sustainability technical manager and a sustainability policy and program manager, among others. This program is not housed only in the sustainability group. The leadership team at CP Chem has a clear interest in this issue, as well as operations teams at all of our company’s process plants.

Sustainability has drawn lots of interest from our employees, as well. They are excited about it and have had many questions on the issue, such as: What is the company doing about sustainability? To educate our personnel, the company’s communications and sustainability teams developed an information package called Plastics and You.

HP: What will it take to solve the problem of plastic waste in our lifetime?

JB: That is a big question—one that does not come with a quick answer. I can tell you some of the things that have to be done. Those include:

  1. We need to clean up the waste that is there now. This is one area where the AEPW is focusing its efforts.
  2. Infrastructure. Different parts of the world are at very different stages in dealing with plastic waste. Many places around the world—primarily in Africa and Asia—do not have the infrastructure to deal with plastic waste. For example, it is not an issue of somebody not wanting to place their waste in a trash bin—they may not have trash bins. If they have trash bins, they may not have anywhere to take them or a system in place to manage waste removal. We must further develop infrastructure in countries that do not have it. In developed regions such as Europe and the U.S., the infrastructure could be more robust in terms of collection and sorting.
  3. Innovation. As previously mentioned, chemical recycling is fairly new in the world of sustainability. Chemical recycling plants are very small and very entrepreneurial. Our industry needs to find a way to scale up these production plants. How do you make this on a much larger industrial scale? How do you make it more efficient and reliable? All of those things will need to happen to grow the chemical recycling industry. A lot of innovation is being fostered. Take product design. How do you make products that are more recyclable? Many consumer product companies and converters are working hard on this challenge and trying to find a solution that will retain the properties, while making it more recyclable. It is a crucial engineering challenge. Another area needing innovation is sorting material for mechanical recycling. An efficient mechanism needs to be put in place. New techniques are happening, but more innovation is needed.
  4. Consumer education. This solution is not only about educating the consumer on recycling but also how to recycle and the products that are recyclable. Many nations around the world will need significant education on recycling. Ultimately, education will make the consumer part of the solution.

It will be a long process, but it is a problem that is solvable. We are an industry of problem solvers. The issue of sustainability is squarely on the radar screen for companies and people around the world. We have, and will continue to see, significant progress in this area. It is a problem that our industry, along with others, can solve, which will change the world for future generations. HP


  1. R. Lord, et. al., “Plastics and sustainability: A valuation of environmental benefits, costs and opportunities for continuous improvement,” American Chemistry Council and Trucost, July 2016.

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