The Missing Equations at ExxonMobil’s Advanced Recycling Operation

The petrochemical giant promotes its new Baytown facility near Houston as a model for solving the world’s glut of used plastic. But ExxonMobil won’t say how much goes into making new plastic—or ends up burned as climate-warming fuel.

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The ExxonMobil Baytown Complex in Baytown, Texas, at dusk. Credit: James Bruggers/Inside Climate News
The ExxonMobil Baytown Complex in Baytown, Texas, at dusk. Credit: James Bruggers/Inside Climate News

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BAYTOWN, Texas—ExxonMobil’s vision of recycling plastic begins here at its massive petrochemical complex, and in many ways, so does that of the city of Houston and its nearly two-year-old recycling collaboration with the oil industry.

It’s a vision that remains murky at best. The details are obscured by cheery promotional videos trumpeting environmentally friendly concepts and by corporate claims of the need to protect proprietary technology.

Since last December, ExxonMobil has touted its “advanced recycling” facility here in Baytown, which began operating commercially that month, as one of the largest in North America and potentially the first of others designed to support a “circular economy.” The intent, the corporation says, is to enable its customers—manufacturers and retail brands that use plastic for everything from bottles to car bumpers—to claim they are using plastic with recycled content in order to meet consumer-driven sustainability goals.

Unlike mechanical recycling, which can only be used for a narrow range of used plastics, advanced (or chemical) recycling is billed as suitable for all types, since it breaks them down into basic chemicals that can be used as pure feedstock for new products. ExxonMobil says the proprietary process used at Baytown will both reduce the need to extract new virgin fossil fuels to make petrochemicals for plastics and cut back on the amount of unrecycled plastic going to landfills.

Bag It: The Plastics Crisis

Yet the company has declined to reveal some of the most basic information about the new facility, including the source of the plastic waste it has been recycling and just how much new plastic it makes from old plastic. Nor will it comment in detail on the chemical process it uses.

Outside experts say they believe the yield of new plastics is very low, and certainly only a tiny fraction of the plastic material that ExxonMobil continues to manufacture from petrochemicals.

In response to questions from Inside Climate News, the company acknowledged that not all the plastic waste it accepts at Baytown gets recycled into new plastic and that at least some gets turned into transportation fuels—something that its announcement about starting up the facility and its online description of the technology do not mention.

Yet waste-to-fuel operations are hard to describe as sustainable or “circular,” a term that generally indicates that raw materials are used over and over, not just once or twice.

The shortage of specifics furnished about the Baytown operation has left environmental advocates and some academic experts confused or highly skeptical about ExxonMobil’s plastics recycling claims. More broadly, it has raised suspicions about advanced recycling itself, which the chemical industry is aggressively advocating as a key solution to runaway plastic pollution as the United Nations seeks to negotiate a global plastics treaty by 2024.

All of this is focusing attention on the Baytown Complex, a jumble of tanks, pipes, stacks, flares and other equipment sprawling across more than five square miles along the 50-mile-long Houston Ship Channel. Described as one of the largest refinery and petrochemical operations in the world, it has been the target of a bitter legal battle over air pollution and permit violations for over a decade. For some neighbors, the advanced recycling operation is just one more component to worry about.

As the big fish in the Houston Recycling Collaboration, a public-private partnership formed in early 2022 to dramatically boost plastics recycling, ExxonMobil casts the recycling operation as a plus for all involved.

It will “play an important role by breaking down plastics that could not be recycled in traditional, mechanical methods,” said Karen McKee, president of ExxonMobil’s Product Solutions company, in announcing the start-up. “We are collaborating with government, industry and communities to scale up the collection and sorting of plastic waste that will improve recycling rates and help our customers around the world meet their sustainability goals.”

The company also claims benefits in the climate change arena: Every 1,000 tons of plastic waste that it processes will result in a decrease of 19 percent to 49 percent in greenhouse gas emissions, when compared with those generated by processing the same amount of fossil-based feedstock, ExxonMobil says.

No Breakdown of What Comes In or Out

When the petroleum giant announced late last year that it had started commercial-scale advanced recycling operations at the Baytown Complex, 25 miles east of Houston, it said it was assessing similar facilities at its operations in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Beaumont, Texas; and Joliet, Illinois, as well as at sites in Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands and Singapore, with a goal of processing 1 billion pounds of plastic waste per year globally by 2026. 

Hinting at ExxonMobil’s potential in the advanced recycling arena, the Minderoo Foundation, an Australian nonprofit whose causes include battling the plastic glut in the world’s oceans, ranks ExxonMobil as the largest producer of virgin polymers used to make the single-use variety.

Beyond declining to identify the sources of the plastic it is processing or the volume of new plastic it is making, ExxonMobil does not specify how much is turned into fuel. Earlier this year, in a new “draft national strategy” to prevent plastic pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reaffirmed that it does not regard the conversion of plastic waste to fuels, or energy production, to be recycling.


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In its December announcement, ExxonMobil said the facility would be capable of processing 80 million pounds of plastic waste annually. Pressed for details on the fate of all of that plastic, including how much of it was being turned into fuel, a company spokeswoman, Julie King, would only say that about 90 percent of the processed plastic waste coming into the Baytown operation is turned into “the same basic molecules used today to make a range of products.” 

In a written statement, she said that the used plastic is jointly processed with other feedstocks to produce a product range that includes “new plastics, chemicals such as butyl rubber, and transportation fuels.”

As for the undisclosed source of the incoming plastic, the city of Houston has confirmed an environmental watchdog group’s discovery that products tossed into bins at Houston’s two new “all plastics” recycling sites are not going to the Baytown facility.

Based on public information about the Baytown Complex, the company’s patents and its likely technology, Jan Dell, an independent chemical engineer and consultant and the founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, a nonprofit that works on reducing plastic pollution, estimates that no more than 25 percent of the incoming plastic waste could be converted into feedstocks for new plastics. 

The site’s technology is based on pyrolysis, she said, in which plastic waste is subjected to intensive heat in an environment of low to zero oxygen and broken down chemically. In January, the federal government’s National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado concluded in a research paper that only 1 to 14 percent of the plastic sent through pyrolysis or a parallel process, gasification, can be retained as plastic. 

At the time, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, an industry lobby group, countered that those conclusions were out of date and that “investments and technological improvements” in the technology were “helping scale up a circular economy for hard-to-recycle plastics to be remade over and over again.”

Dell and others argue that whatever amount of new plastic feedstocks ExxonMobil creates from waste plastic, it pales in comparison to what the Baytown Complex is producing. In Dell’s estimation, the company’s output of plastic feedstocks in Baytown derived from waste plastic is “trivial”—meaning it would amount to just 0.2 percent of the complex’s yearly production of feedstocks for plastics.

A Handy Accounting Method

To track the molecules of plastic waste that enter its Baytown Complex and estimate what happens to them, the company has turned to an accounting practice known as “mass balance,” which is intended to trace and certify circular polymers and relies on guidance from the industry-backed International Sustainability and Carbon Certification system. The system, which has been around since 2006, also offers sustainability certifications for sectors like biofuels and agricultural crops. ISCC members include some of the world’s industrial behemoths.

But critics say the certification system lacks transparency and allows for unsupported claims of circularity and sustainability.

When applied to chemical recycling, for example, a technique within the mass balance approach known as “free attribution” allows companies like ExxonMobil to estimate that as much as 100 percent of those recycled molecules went into new plastic production instead of subtracting what went into climate-warming fuel products, Dell said. 

As a result, companies can virtually segregate all so-called recycled plastic into a limited amount of pellets and sell them at a premium, as 100 percent recycled plastic, when they actually contain only a very small percentage of recycled content, she said.

In a report to Congress last year, the National Institute of Standards and Technology found “many unsettled issues, ill-defined terms, and conflicting objectives” in the application of mass balance accounting to plastics.

In an interview, Kathryn L. Beers, the manager of NIST’s “circular economy” program, said she stood by that assessment, while emphasizing that mass balance accounting systems can be a “powerful tool”—essentially, a starting point for pushing companies to adopt more sustainable practices as requirements become more stringent.

Still, Beers said, to some extent, the public’s acceptance of such accounting figures involves trusting companies, which she said cannot divulge every detail of their processing for competitive reasons.

“Even a perfect mass balance system is not going to make all of the data public,” she said. “There is data buried in the assessments that reveals information to competitors about the processes that are being used.” 

For critics of the fossil fuel industry, such trust does not come easily. 

Reporting by Inside Climate News has shown that even when ExxonMobil was at the forefront of denials that climate change was underway in recent decades, contradicting a growing scientific consensus, its own scientists had long since confirmed that greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels were warming the planet and posed catastrophic risks to humanity. 

ExxonMobil also continues to fight lawsuits from cities and states over its role in contributing to those emissions.

In comments in April to the Federal Trade Commission, which is reviewing its policies on environmental marketing claims by corporations, environmental groups including Greenpeace and Beyond Plastics urged the government to crack down on mass balance reporting—including the corporate practice of reallocating or spreading estimates of recycled content among multiple plastic manufacturing facilities. It is “a model that could lead to massive greenwashing” through “creative accounting,” the groups argued.

Critics Question Climate Benefits

ExxonMobil’s goals for expanding its chemical recycling of plastic waste to 1 billion pounds by the end of 2026 “may sound like a lot,” said Terry Collins, a professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University who focuses on developing sustainable solutions. But he says it is dwarfed by the industry’s overall global plastic production. 

Collins is also a founding member of the Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, a group of experts involved in a push by the United Nations to negotiate a global plastics pact. Diplomats negotiating the technical guidelines for another treaty, the 1989 Basel Convention on the management of hazardous waste, have fought over the merits of chemical recycling, and a vigorous effort to influence delegates is expected from environmental and industry groups at the next round of UN plastics treaty talks in Nairobi, Kenya, on Nov. 13-19.

Collins calculates that ExxonMobil would need to build more than 300 facilities with the capacity of its Baytown operation to process all of the plastic it makes at its far-flung plants. Globally, he said, more than 10,000 such facilities would be needed to process all of the plastic produced on the planet. 

Although the ExxonMobil plant has not released any estimates of the current or future emissions from its Baytown chemical recycling facility, Collins said that in general, such operations can emit “forbiddingly toxic” substances in addition to posing the risk of fires and explosions.

In essence, Collins maintains, no solution to the global plastics crisis makes sense “without dramatic cuts to the production of virgin plastics” in the first place. 

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He cited widespread worry about the health risks associated with the production and use of plastics, including “bone-chilling concerns” about the hormone-mimicking chemicals used to make plastics and their impacts on human and animal development.

ExxonMobil’s claims for the climate benefits of chemical recycling have also raised questions. The company’s estimate of producing 19 percent to 49 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions by recycling plastics with “advanced” technology is based on an analysis prepared by the corporate risk-management software firm Sphera, ExxonMobil said, although it declined to provide a copy of the analysis.

David Nix, a chemical engineer and private consultant in western Pennsylvania who worked in the oil and gas industry and owns a traditional mechanical recycling company in Minnesota, says that such estimates are dubious. Chemical recycling methods basically involve all of the same steps as mechanical recycling—from washing to sorting to shredding waste plastic—and then a lot more, said Nix, the author of a 2023 report on chemical recycling plastics that drew on his own review of ExxonMobil’s patents in the public domain.

“So it’s just logical that all those extra things that require 800 degrees of heat, or 1,000 degrees of heat, to break it down, has to create more carbon dioxide, just logically,” Nix said.

The Baytown Complex was the sixth-largest industrial greenhouse gas emitter in 2022, according to newly released numbers from the EPA.

The “Eight Dragons” 

For those who live near ExxonMobil’s mammoth Baytown Complex, the pyrotechnics associated with its industrial activity inspire a mix of awe and trepidation. 

One Baytown neighbor, Mike Szumski, the retired owner of an industrial-hose-and-fitting business, points to the tall furnaces added in recent expansions of the company’s Olefins Plant. Each year, the plant manufactures around 10 billion pounds of petrochemical products that go into the production of anything from tires to plastic bags.

He calls the furnaces “the eight dragons,” noting the smoke and fire they episodically spew into the sky. 

Then there’s the noise and heat the petrochemical complex generates: The rumbling is enough to shake nearby homes, and fires can raise local temperatures, said Szumski, who lives within 3,000 feet of the Olefins Plant. “There was one time when the heat from the flames was rolling into my garage, he said. 

In 2019 and 2021, Szumski recalls, explosions and fires rocked the industrial complex, sending black plumes of smoke into the sky. News reports said that dozens of workers were injured. “It’s totally horrible—I’m scared,” he said. “I wish I could tell them, ‘Hey, why don’t you live in my house for a month, then you’d understand what I have to go through?’” 

Mike Szumski and Terri Blackwood live in Baytown, Texas, and are worried about a new "advanced recycling" facility for plastic at the ExxonMobil Baytown Complex.  Some of what Szumski calls the "eight dragons," or furnaces, of the ExxonMobil Olefins Plant, can be seen rising from behind a home across the street from Szumski's home. Credit: James Bruggers/Inside Climate News
Mike Szumski and Terri Blackwood live in Baytown, Texas, and are worried about a new “advanced recycling” facility for plastic at the ExxonMobil Baytown Complex. Some of what Szumski calls the “eight dragons,” or furnaces, of the ExxonMobil Olefins Plant, can be seen rising just above the roofline of a house across the street from Szumski’s home. Credit: James Bruggers/Inside Climate News

Szumski’s wife, Terri Blackwood, a business consultant, said that when she first heard of ExxonMobil’s chemical recycling plans, she “totally bought into that this is a good thing.”

“If we have plastics, and we’re capturing them, and they can reuse them?’’ Blackwood said. “I want them reused. I mean, that’s an upside, even if it’s slightly hazardous to do that process.” But with a number of questions about advanced recycling unanswered, and with ExxonMobil’s track record as a neighbor, she said, “now I’m super-skeptical.” 

One street closer to the Olefins Plant, the dragons loom above the wooden fence behind the ranch-style home that Shirley Williams shares with her husband. “I’ve been here since 1998,” said Williams, a retired service station and barbershop owner.  “And at first, it was really good because the new part of the plant wasn’t there.”

After repeated expansions, Williams began keeping a photographic log of fires and billowing smoke on her cellphone. The odors can be almost unbearable, she said, likening them to the smell of gas from a leaking stove.

“This was actually supposed to be our retirement home,” she said, “because I love the backyard. It was nice. It’s pretty. We have rocking chairs back there. But I don’t go out there because I just don’t feel safe.”

Shirley Williams can see furnaces of an ExxonMobil chemical plant from beyond the wooden fence in her backyard in Baytown, Texas. She said odors can make it unbearable outside. Credit: James Bruggers/Inside Climate News
Shirley Williams can see furnaces of an ExxonMobil chemical plant from beyond the wooden fence in her backyard in Baytown, Texas. She said odors can make it unbearable outside. Credit: James Bruggers/Inside Climate News

ExxonMobil has been at odds for years with some of its Baytown neighbors and environmental groups over its environmental performance. Environment Texas and the Sierra Club, for example, sued ExxonMobil in 2010 under the Clean Air Act, accusing the company of 16,386 instances of illegal air emissions and of harming the health of communities around the Baytown complex. The accusations were based on information that the company had disclosed in its own reports.

In 2017, a district court ordered the company to pay almost $20 million, but appeals followed, and the legal battle continues. Last year, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld a $14.25 million fine, thought to be the largest to date resulting from a citizens effort to enforce environmental laws.

“We’ve been real concerned about Exxon Baytown for a long time,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas. Adding chemical recycling, yet another source of emissions, to the mix deepens the worries about community health, he said.

In a written statement, Exxon said it applies “the same rigorous environmental standards to advanced recycling as we do with manufacturing processes at our facilities and comply with all applicable laws and regulations.”

Benefit of the Doubt: A Hopeful Neighbor

While not entirely happy with ExxonMobil’s record, some residents are willing to give the company’s new plastics recycling operation the benefit of the doubt—at least for now.

“I don’t know enough about advanced recycling,” said Agustin Leredo, a schoolteacher, coach and community leader who lives in Baytown. But plastics are ubiquitous, he notes, and the world depends on them. “We all have stuff that’s made of plastic. We use things that are plastic, our computers, everything is plastic.” 

If the new facility helps Exxon become more fiscally and environmentally responsible, Leredo said, he is fine with it. “My hope is that they’re cleaner, and they take care of their business,” he added.

But for Collins, the Carnegie Mellon professor, ExxonMobil is too invested in fossil fuels and plastics manufacturing to be trusted, whatever its technical expertise and innovations.

“Even in the experienced hands of Exxon, I think this technology will never be safe and sustainable,” he said. “And Exxon is just too conflicted in needing to protect and expand its giant production of plastics.”

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